We just returned from hearing Esa-Pekka Salonen and the New York Philharmonic in Haydn’s Sixth Symphony, Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, the first in the Philharmonic’s “Hungarian Echoes” festival. Tommasini gave a highly favorable review in the NYT, so instead of a full-scale review I’ll just jot down a few impressions.
The Haydn was intriguing, another example of a full-scale orchestra embracing a semi-HIP style for 18th century repertory. (We heard a similar approach in Haydn’s 102nd Symphony from Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra in January —a terrific concert.) Salonen used a very small orchestra–three stands each of first and second violins–and directed them to use no vibrato. When playing solos, the first-desk strings still used it, but the orchestra hardly at all. Yet there was still the plush, rounded sound of modern instruments; the New York Philharmonic did not magically transform itself into, say, the Academy of Ancient Music. A compromise, then, but thoroughly enjoyable. As was the Bartók. Salonen eschewed sentimentality, refusing to slow down for quieter sections or cantabile passages, and expertly realizing Bartók’s amazingly inventive colors and textures. (One example: he gave enough time for trombonist Joseph Alessi to sleaze up the slides in the fourth movement, and the audience tittered, as it should.)
The real revelation, though, was the Ligeti. I’d never heard the name Marino Formenti, a substitute for Pierre-Laurent Aimard (who recorded the work with Boulez on DG and with the Schoenberg Ensemble on Teldec), but I’ll be looking out for him in the future. Formenti attacked the score like a jazz pianist, pounding his foot and grunting along as he unleashed a torrent of fantastically varied sounds–in one moment pounding out chords throughout the piano’s range, in the next murmuring quietly (the beginning of the third section). The work encapsulates many of Ligeti’s more striking idioms (and therefore might be a good introduction to the composer); from the first section’s driving polyrhythms (partially inspired by African and Latin American music), to the unearthly micropolyphony of the second section and the moto perpetuo of the third.
I can’t say I understand all of the concerto’s subtleties, but I can say that experiencing the piece live was completely different from listening to the recordings (Aimard, and Ueli Wiget with Peter Eötvös and the Ensemble Modern on Sony). I imagine that the cold, hard light of modern digital recording tends to render everything with a glaring clarity. Certainly that’s my sense, after hearing how discrete textures on record blended into startlingly original sonorities in live performance. Even the spasmodic fourth section, which I found hard to take on record, had broader continuities of structure, phrasing, and color which I never would have detected had I not heard the piece live. Some people did walk out, but I found much of the work incredibly, starkly beautiful, and when I go back to the recordings I’ll try to remember what I heard tonight.