NY Philharmonic’s “Hungarian Echoes” Festival

The NY Philharmonic is turning over the podium for several weeks to Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish-born conductor who currently head the Philharmonic Orchestra of London and was previously music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Salonen's assignment was to produce a mini-festival with a thematic link, thus "Hungarian Echoes" and a series of concerts linking the music of Haydn, Ligeti and Bartok.  The Haydn link here is a bit tenuous; we usually think of him as a Viennese classicist, but those were the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Haydn's longtime employers, the Esterhazy family, owned a castle in what was then the Kingdom of Hungary where they spent some months each year with their music director in residence.  The identification of Ligeti and Bartok with Hungary is more straightforward, and both have incorporated Hungarian folksong elements into their work at various times.

Last night I attended the last of four performances of the first program in the three-part series: Haydn's Symphony No. 6 (Le Matin), Ligeti's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.  Pierre-Laurent Aimard had been announced as soloist for the Ligeti, but due to his indisposition Marino Formenti was the substitute.

My overall impression of the concert was that the musicians performed brilliantly, Salonen conducted with great dynamism, but there were times when I was not really touched by the music.  The Haydn used a reduced string section with one flute, two oboes, one bassoon, two horns and harpsichord continuo, all at modern tuning.  One has become unaccustomed to hearing music of the mid-18th century played by such an ensemble, as early Haydn is rarely performed on modern symphony concert programs.  The performance struck me as safely old-fashioned in a way, with none of the extreme accents and lurching rhythms that one might hear from early music groups in this music.

I confess to having problems with Ligeti's Piano Concerto.  Indeed, I found it hard to think of this as a Piano Concerto, as such, because the piano was really treated more as just another member of the ensemble, albeit one with a super-virtuoso role to play.  Perhaps the location of the piano to the left of the orchestra rather than centered on the stage contributed to this sense, that Ligeti was relegating the pianist to a role of first among equals.  This idea was accentuated by the use of single string players on each part, rather than sections of first and second violins, violas, cellos and basses.  (A friend who was present with a score told me at intermission that the scoring is for chamber orchestra, not solo strings.)  But I didn't think that making it into chamber music was quite so successful, because there was so much for percussion and winds to do that I felt the need for more strings to balance…  The first movement had a jazz-like feel at times, due to the rhythms.  I found myself losing the thread of the musical argument as the piece progressed, and ultimately feeling a bit disconnected from it.  I'm thinking of putting a recording on my ipod to see whether repeated exposure might generate more appreciation on my part.  The recording in my collection (only heard once) is actually by Aimard, with a new music chamber ensemble, so perhaps I'll get a good idea of what I missed last night by his absence.

Finally, after intermission, on more familiar ground, the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra.  This was a supervirtuosic performance, but I felt at times that something was missing in the way of humor and warmth.  To my way of thinking, for example, the second movement, with its perky, bouncy duets for winds and occasional plucked accompaniment in the strings should be played as a scherzo, with a twinkle in the eye being communicated, but Salonen's approach seemed more matter-of-fact.  And in the fourth movement – Interrupted Intermezzo – the big, luscious string tune didn't seem to me to be conveyed with sufficient warmth – once again I had a feeling of "matter of fact" about it.  This is not to take away from the sheer technical accomplishment of the performance.  As a rendition of the score it was immaculate.  But I think some things were missing.

I will be attending again next Tuesday when the menu calls for more Haydn (Symphony No. 7), Ligeti's Concert Romanesc (an early, folk-inflected work), and Bartok's one-act opera, Bluebeard's Castle.

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