Review: Argerich and Dutoit in Montreal

Saturday, February 20 2016
Maison symphonique de Montréal, Montreal, Canada

Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
Charles Dutoit, conductor
Martha Argerich, piano

Berlioz, Le carnaval romain Overture, Op. 9 (1844)
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1797)
Stravinsky, Petrushka (1911)
Ravel, La valse (1920)

They say that Martha Argerich technically never cancels a performance, because she never actually signs any contracts promising that she’d show up.  You know, kind of like how Canadian winters never promise to pull any punches.  So when one books a flight to Montreal in February, not only must one be prepared for the possibility of a last-minute substitute pianist, one has to accept that the weather may interfere with even the backup plan of settling for some poutine.

But, whatever other grudges I hold against life, tonight I was a lucky lucky girl.  For starters, Ms. Argerich showed up.  Nominally, the concert is a homecoming for Charles Dutoit, who led the OSM for 25 years before having some kind of fallout (and personally I do have a soft spot for the man who was chief conductor in Philadelphia during those formative years of my musical education).  The maestro got a rousing reception, but make no mistake about it, Ms. Argerich was the main draw.  That her name was barely a footnote on the promotional brochures was probably due to the orchestra management not wanting to jinx an already delicate proposition.  When she came out on stage, the audience led out an audible gasp and gave her such an enthusiastic welcome that she had to gesture the audience to stop clapping so that the music may begin.   As for the performance itself, it’s not often that I say this, but Ms. Argerich playing Beethoven is everything that one could imagine, and more.  The First is probably my favorite among Beethoven’s five piano concertos (and there is no bad one in the bunch), with a carefully crafted first movement, heartbreakingly tender second (right up there with the second movements of Mozart’s 23rd and Beethoven’s own Emperor as the Greatest Slow Movements Ever), and delightfully witty finale.  I’ve listened to many versions of the concerto by many a great pianist, but none of them has anything on Ms. Argerich, who struck that sublime balance between technique and interpretation, control and abandonment.  What’s remarkable about her, particularly during the second movement, is that she emotes exquisitely and openly without ever overplaying.  Where mere mortals come off as either aloof or undisciplined, Ms. Argerich’s playing is accessible, intimate, rousing, but also no-nonsense and never patronizing.  If there is a heaven, please let it be Martha Argerich playing Beethoven on a loop.  (But also, please let Ms. Argerich grace our presence on this earth for many more years to come.)

I didn’t make the trek to Montreal for the snow and slush, or, for that matter, the rest of the program.  Berlioz / Stravinsky / Ravel is typically a trio that I would only listen to if I were in a captive audience, which in this case I was.  But I’m happy to report that while I came for the pianist, I will leave with new-found interest in Berlioz and Ravel, and, if nothing else, slightly less fear for Stravinsky.  The Berlioz overture that opened the program was not unlike the Weber overture from my last blog post, as both featured soulful wind melodies (in this case, the oboe) and created a fully dramatic arc in limited lengths of time.  Stravinsky is one of a very few number of classical composers (the others being Debussy and Schoenberg) that I go out of my way to avoid, but tonight I actually found myself enjoying Petrushka.  I mean, Stravinsky to me is like Picasso: there are parts of his art that are almost familiar, but the realization of this familiarity itself, along with the components that are ostensibly uncanonical, is deeply provocative and even subversive.  It’s not music for relaxation, as I always feel as if I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.  While I probably still won’t be adding Petrushka to my work playlist anytime soon, for the first time I felt that I was able to somewhat reconcile between the classically enjoyable parts of modern music and the expositions that promptly and purposefully deconstruct this enjoyment.  Speaking of which, I had always taken Ravel’s Valse as a straightforward waltz, but evidently it is actually a deconstruction thereof.  Upon closer listen, indeed the waltz theme takes on darker qualities as the beats go on, with the once harmonious and innocent theme gradually being consumed by shadow until it plunges into near-chaos yet eerily still maintaining the form of the waltz, which by the end was merely a skeletal vehicle.  Maestro Dutoit, 80 years young and having lost nary a spring in his steps, almost danced along, though one must wonder about the symbolism in concluding the program with this piece (and then playing Bolero, however a crowd pleaser it is, as encore).  Maybe he was seeking closure, kind of like how writers kill off main characters to prevent others from continuing their stories unauthorized.  I hope that he and everyone else found what they came looking for tonight.  I know I did.
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Review: Maurizio Pollini with the New York Philharmonic

Friday, October 16 2015
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Maurizio Pollini, piano

Berlioz, Le corsaire Overture (1844)
Tchaikovsky, Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy (1880)
Chopin, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1830)

Even for New York City, this week is quite special in its classical music offerings.  On the heels of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s visit to Carnegie Hall, tonight a piano legend returns to the New York Philharmonic for the first time in 20 years with the concerto that launched his career: Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin’s 1st, a can’t-miss event for which I broke my concert budget and was so excited about all week.

So imagine my panic when the 1 train I was on stopped for nearly 10 minutes between 34th and 42nd, threatening to make me late.  I tried to relax by reminding myself that it wouldn’t be a huge loss if I missed the opening Berlioz overture.  Chopin’s legacy–partially French as it is–aside, the French canon doesn’t do much for me.  The notes are nice individually, but the whole usually feels less than the sum of the parts; I can’t quite pinpoint why.  Le corsaire Overture, the inspiration of which was either James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Red Rover or Lord Byron’s poem The Corsaire (either way, a writer of the Anglosphere, how un-French), is an especially poor match for the New York Philharmonic due to the piece’s brass highlights and the orchestra’s one-note, loud-for-loud’s-sake, brass section.

But, that’s OK, I’m certain nobody bought a ticket to the concert just to hear the orchestra play Berlioz.  Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, while quite possibly the most over the top Romantic piece I have ever heard, ingeniously retells the story of the star-crossed lovers in less than 20 minutes, something that takes Prokofiev two and a half hours and with ballet dancers.  In Tchaikovsky’s version, the piece starts with the dignified but foreboding friar’s theme, which gives away gradually to the agitated warring between the Capulets and the Montagues.  The action slows with the love theme, played separately by the English horn (Romeo) and the flute (Juliet).  After more battles, the love theme returns, this time loudly and with the English horn and flute intertwined, signaling that the lovers have consummated their marriage.  Consummation of love is of course punishable by death, which is promptly marked with two cymbal crashes.  A final battle ensues, followed by a sweet homage by the woodwinds to their fallen comrades.  I can’t say that the Philharmonic added anything to either my interpretation or enjoyment of the piece, but it was a solid performance.

After the intermission we arrive at the main event: Pollini playing Chopin.  Chopin’s 1st piano concerto is expressive, nuanced, equal parts strength and vulnerability, joy and melancholy, and far far beyond the composer’s 20 years at the time of its premier.  It’s also an exception among my favorite piano concertos in that it is the only piece in which I can discern no structure, by which I mean that for as many times as I’ve listened to the piece (weekly if not daily), if you played me an excerpt, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you which movement it is from.  All of the themes seem to blend together into something so blissfully that it shuts down my analytic functions completely.  My favorite recording is the one by Krystian Zimerman with the Polish Festival Orchestra, which explores every nuance of the music and enhances whichever sensitive mood I might be in, furthering a tendency of indulging in sadness as a means to perceive beauty.

Maurizio Pollini is one of the most lauded Chopin interpreters of all time, and he had played this concerto on his way to winning the 1960 Chopin Competition.  Most world-famous musicians, as technically fluid as they must be, also–by and for design of their fame–cultivate a somewhat flashy brand in personality or demeanor.  Pollini is the complete opposite.  His upper body exhibits minimal movement, and his playing is crisp and unembellished.  In the age of Lang Lang and Khatia Buniatishvili, this is refreshing.  On the other hand, I really feel that Chopin’s 1st is a piece that allows for some indulgence, and Pollini’s detached style, combined with a few missed notes, did not do it full justice.  (The sacrilege!)  Compared to the Zimmerman version, Pollini’s performance, though probably temporally perfect, lacked warmth and emotion, and the piano floated above the orchestra instead of within it.  This hardly mattered to the audience though.  After the pianist played his last note, the orchestra still had a few seconds left, but the audience was already clapping.  A standing ovation for maestro lasted a full five minutes, and the New York crowd only reluctantly dispersed when it was clear that he was not going to give an encore.  After all, one can always nitpick, but Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin is still darn close to as good as music gets.
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