Friday, December 06, 2013

New York Philharmonic – David Zinman, conductor; Richard Goode, piano. December 5, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra 2 (Seat Q20, $22.)

Three Studies from Couperin (2006) by Thomas Ades (b. 1971).
Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat major, K.456 (1784) by Mozart (1756-91).
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56, Scottish (1840-42) by Mendelssohn (1809-47).

Going to this concert was a last-minute decision.  Goldstar had them at half price, and the seats we got, in the "Orchestra 2" section, were quite reasonable.

We had only one prior encounter with Francois Couperin (1668-1733), at a pre-concert recital for a Mostly Mozart concert this summer, and I had forgotten all about it, except that the lute was also used in that pre-concert.

The British composer Ades is a self-acknowledged fan of Couperin who considers staying at home playing his harpsichord music to be a perfect day.  He orchestrated three movements of Couperin’s, each the last movement from an “ordre,” and grouped them as the Three Studies.  They are (i) Les amusements (The Amusements) from the Seventh Ordre (in G major) in Couperin’s Second Book of Harpsichord Pieces (1717); (ii) Les Tours de Passe-passe (The Sleight-of-Hand), final movement of the Twenty-Second Ordre (in D major), Fourth Book (1730); and (iii) L’Ame-en-peine (The Soul in Distress), Thirteenth Ordre (B minor), Third Book (1722).

While the ensemble that played the pieces was small, it was quite complicated as befits the work of a contemporary composer.  For example, there are two string orchestras of 16 players each.  The music is a mixture of baroque and modern, with emphasis on the former.  It would be interesting to compare the orchestrated version with the harpsichord version.  For Study 2, the Program Notes talks about how a descending melody comes out in the harpsichord while the music calls for hand  crossings (thus its title “Sleight-of-hand.”)  However, in the orchestrated version such “trickery” isn’t needed.  Overall it was an enjoyable introduction to the evening.

Two surprising things about the Mozart performance are (i) the soloist needed the music; and (ii) I hadn’t heard it before.  While (ii) may simply speak to my ignorance, (i) is quite unusual, especially for Mozart piano concertos.  Three standard movements make up the 24-minute composition: Allegro (vivace), Andante un poco sostenuto, and Allegro vivace.  Goode, whom we saw for the first time, put in a good performance (and I can't tell if was a great performance).  The concerto is typical Mozartean, crisp and light for the most part.  There is a rather long discussion in the Playbill about whether Maria Theresia Paradies premiered it.  Nothing unusual, except that Paradies was blind, and if she indeed was the premiere soloist, she might only have had (proper grammar?) two days to practice.

The concerto was composed during a period Mozart was extremely popular.  The Playbill references two aspects that I didn’t catch.  One was that the “anxious but not depressing” second-movement theme may have prefigured Barbarina’s aria in Act 4 of The Marriage of Figaro.  The other was a short episode in the third movement where a mixed meter (6/8 and 2/4) was used.

The last time the New York Philharmonic played Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony was in 2004, so we can conclude it isn’t a popular piece in the organizations repertoire. I was in Hong Kong last December, and attended a Hong Kong Philharmonic concert that had this and the other Scottish piece by Mendelssohn on the program (The Hebrides.)

The Symphony is easy to like, and one could tell it is Scottish (especially after knowing its title.)  The Playbill quotes the following entries from Mendelssohn’s letter during his visit to Scotland: “Yesterday was a lovely day, … red heather in blossom,” and “Our host’s beautiful daughter ... newest herrings… swam about in the water.”  It also describes listeners to the Symphony as “… happy to hear its flavor as authentically Scottish in spirit, replete with pentatonic melody sparkling rhythm, and, in its fast movements, an infectious warmth.”

All good, and indeed that was how I felt during the performance.  And I was greatly puzzled.

I recall the sentiment described in the Hong Kong writeup was quite different from what I read in the New York writeup.  Indeed going back to my notes, Mendelssohn’s remark about the landscape was “barren, rugged, unforgiving,” the people “unfriendly, drinking all the time.”  While I did say in that Blog that the music didn’t sound as bleak, it was nonetheless on the darker side.

So what gives?  I am either easily swayed, or there are drastically different ways to interpret any given composition.  As I type this, I am listening to a Youtube clip of the first movement performed by the New Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti.  It was more along the bleak end of the spectrum.

 The four movements are (i) Andante con moto – Allegro un poco agitato; (ii) Vivace non troppo; (iii) Adagio; and (iv) Allegro vivacissimo – Allegro maestoso assai.  While they were marked – and performed – "without pause," there were sufficient changes from one movement to the next that a pause would have been acceptable.  And they would have allowed me to let out some of the coughing I had to suppress during the 40 or so minutes.  It was a good thing that lozenges helped.

David Zinman, whom we have seen on several prior occasions, was quite effusive in his conducting.  This is his last season with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra.  He looked extremely energetic for a 77-year old.

The concert wasn’t well-attended, even with the Philharmonic reducing the prices on its website and the availability of further discounts by Goldstar and (I assume) similar outfits.  I hope it is because of the shopping season.

To the New York Times review writer, it was nearly all good.  She had some minor quibble with how Goode wasn't crisp enough in some Mozart passages, and how the orchestra might have been a bit too cautious.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw Goode do an all-Beethoven program at Carnegie Hall in April 2013, I think it was 3 sonatas and a group of variations, and he used the music for all of it. I was astonished given that Beethoven is what he's known for - he's recorded all of the sonatas. Maybe he just doesn't trust his memory anymore because of advancing age. His wife was the page turner.