Saturday, September 22, 2012

New York Philharmonic - Kurtag, Beethoven & Stravinsky - 09/21/12

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Kurtag: ... quasi una fantasia ... for Piano and Groups of Instruments, Op. 27, No 1 - Leif Ove Andsnes
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 - Leif Ove Andsnes
Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)

One week before opening its season with a gala concert starring Itzhak Perlman for an attractive-but-safe program of crowd pleasers, the New York Philharmonic has been presenting its first series of performances of the season with a much more substantial program boasting of Kurtag, Beethoven and Stravinsky. It sounded good to me. Of course, the fact that the two first pieces would feature pianist extraordinaire Leif Ove Andsnes did not hurt a bit either. And, after all, why not celebrate the first official day of fall with one of classical music's most influential masterpieces, which happens to celebrate... the rite of spring? 
As luck would have it, my evening at the Lincoln Center yesterday started on an unexpected but happy note as I was welcome on the Lincoln Plaza by some excerpts of the Met HD broadcast of last season opening opera Anna Bolena, probably to allow the Met tech crew to work out any technical glitches before Monday's live broadcast of this season opening opera L'Elisir d'amore, starring the very same Anna Netrebko. An offer to hear the superstar soprano's gorgeous voice is always to be grabbed, so I contentedly sat down to watch and listened while marveling that this surprise treat made my just consolidated plan to go hear her live across the pond in just a few months even more palpable.

Back to the New York Philharmonic in the Avery Fisher Hall, the evening started with a short but fascinating work by contemporary Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag. Performed by the conductor, pianist and timpanist on stage while the other musicians were relegated to the back of the various tiers, the four miniature pieces turned out to be mysterious, atmospheric, unpredictable and always engaging. Although I typically hate sitting in one of the sides of a concert hall, I have to say that it worked out very well in these circumstances since I could watch and hear what was going on on both ends without any difficulty.
Back in their normal configuration, the orchestra and soloist proved to be in very fine form indeed for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 3. As was to be expected, Leif Ove Andsnes subtly emphasized the organic beauty of the music thanks to a winning combination of more Mozartian elegance and less Beethovian drama. The composer's impetuousness was nevertheless there too, especially in the vibrantly alive third movement. Solidly backed up by an understated but unmistakably present orchestra, the pianist felt free to let the music simply, eloquently speak for itself.
As the 100th anniversary of its infamous Parisian première nears (on May 19, 2013, to be exact), Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is likely to appear on quite a few concert programs this season, and who is complaining? Certainly not the audience in the Avery Fisher Hall last night, where the New York Philharmonic in full force - in more ways than one - made it abundantly clear why this avant-garde series of "Pictures of Pagan Russia" is as viscerally radical today as it was one century ago, minus the riot. From the opening bassoon solo of uncompromising purity to the closing notes of unrestrained savagery, this thrilling Rite benefited enormously from the orchestra's rock-solid mastery of their art and Alan Gilbert's steady command of the relentless wild ride. The result was a finely textured and highly energized performance that regularly exploded into moments of enigmatic exoticism and thunderous primitiveness, to the point where the listeners had no choice but to happily abandon themselves to the implacable score. On the other hand, dissonances had never sounded so good. If this concert is any indication of what's in store for next season with New York City's premier orchestra, I will definitely show up more often.

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