This week’s subscription concert from the New York Philharmonic, which I attended Thursday night for the first performance of the cycle, surrounds the Concerto Grosso by Krzysztof Penderecki (a work for three cello soloists and orchestra) with music by Maurice Ravel. Both Ravel pieces, originally conceived for the piano, were subsequently orchestrated to sumptuous effect, and provided an opportunity to revel in the sheer virtuosity of the New York Philharmonic, which is conducted this week by an expert in this repertory, Charles Dutoit, artistic director and principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (London).
There are some simplifications and omissions from the paragraph above. For one thing, the entire second half of the program was taken up by Pictures at an Exhibition, a piece first conceptualized and sketched out for the piano by Modest Mussorgsky, a 19th century Russian composer, whose original draft was worked over editorially by Rimsky-Korsakov and published posthumously, then orchestrated by Ravel upon a commission from Serge Koussevitzky for his famous “Concerts Koussevitzky” which he presented in Paris during the interregnum between his Russian career and his brilliant music directorship of the Boston Symphony. Ravel did more than merely orchestrate; he absorbed the essence of the published piano score and transformed it into such a convincing and brilliant orchestral suite that for a generation it was known to concertgoers mainly in that form, not to achieve more general recognition as a piano piece into Vladimir Horowitz exhumed it, tinkered with it, and played and recorded it. Then it was taken up by Sviatoslav Richter in the 1950s, and today one is more likely to hear it in a piano recital than a symphony concert, as it seems to be in the active repertory of many contemporary pianists. The opening work on the concert, Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnol, was first composed as a work for piano 4-hands, then orchestrated, and again, Ravel’s incredible skill as an orchestral composer raises incredulity that this colorful piece could have first been conceived for the keyboard. So, the symmetry of the program is not complete – although Penderecki is, in an important sense, surrounded by Ravel, Ravel’s role in the two pieces differs, but nobody hearing both pieces would fail to hear the same orchestral magician at work, for “Pictures” sounds like Ravel, even though its textures differ in some important respects from the textures of the Rapsodie.
Needless to say when the NY Philharmonic in its current estate is concerned, both Ravel pieces were played with great brilliance, the orchestra responsive to every nuance sought by Dutoit, whose mastery in this repertory is unsurpassed.
But the other omission from my firs paragraph is to explain the phrase “expert in this repertory,” for Dutoit must also be acknowledged for having conducted the world premiere of Penderecki’s Concerto Grosso in 2001 in Tokyo, leading the orchestra that had commissioned the work, and he is, according to an article previewing the concert by The New York Times, an ardent exponent of the piece. His solo trio for the occasion consisted of NYP principal cellist Carter Brey, Alisa Weilerstein, and Daniel Muller-Schott. Muller-Schott was making his Philharmonic subscription concert debut. Weilerstein has become a familiar figure on the NY concert scene. (Her brother, one of the NYP assistant conductors this season, made his subscription concert debut just two weeks ago.) I thought it was unfortunate that Muller-Schott didn’t get his first shot at an NYP subscription audience in a solo piece. He has emerged as a major figure in Europe, and perhaps deserved a more extensive showcase here. But this trio meshed well together. I have to confess that the piece itself did not hold my attention well, as I found myself “zoning out” a bit over the course of the uninterrupted 35 minute span, but the last several minutes I found spellbinding and incredibly beautiful. I rushed home to listen to the Naxos recording and confirmed for myself that the piece is worth hearing again. The composer, celebrating his 80th birthday this year, was on hand for the New York Philharmonic premiere of his piece, and seemed very pleased with the enthusiastic reception from the audience as he took his bows. As the piece was finished in 2000, one hesitates to call it a 21st century piece, especially as Penderecki has long since evolved from the more radical sound of his early works and now writes works in an almost neo-romantic vein. In that sense, the entire program was a 20th century program of Ravel and Penderecki – were it not for the tricky fact that the Mussorgsky piano original dates from 1874!
At any event, I was particularly impressed with the orchestra’s sheer virtuosity, especially after having heard a concert at Carnegie Hall two nights before by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s that struck me as surprisingly sloppy by comparison. In writing about that concert, I observed that the conductor had taken tempi that placed too many obstacles in the way of his musicians, but I’m sure the NYP could surmount those obstacles with ease, as the excellence of the playing I heard last night would prove. It is an unfair comparison, of course, as the NYP draws upon the cream of world musical virtuosi to fill vacancies in its ranks, with resources that St. Luke’s could not begin to imagine. But every dollar of the difference can be heard emanating from that stage.