Sunday, April 06, 2014

New York Philharmonic – Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor; Peter Serkin, piano. April 3, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat CC103, $40.)

Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a (1944-45) by Britten (1913-76).
Piano Concerto No. 3, BB 127 (1945) by Bartok (1881-1945).
Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953) by Shostakovich (1906-75).

I got a ticket to this concert in exchange for one I couldn’t get to a couple of weeks ago.  One of the reasons I didn’t include this in my NY Phil subscription was probably the program itself: all three pieces were written in the 1940s and 50s.  Since I attended another “modern” program just a couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the evening.  On the positive side, all three composers fall into the “I do get their music” camp.

It turned out to be a rather enjoyable evening, even though it was a bit on the long side.  Per the Playbill, the three pieces last 16, 23 and 53 minutes respectively; and they have to bring out the piano after the first piece.  It was around 10 pm when I left Avery Fisher, the concert started at 7:30 pm.

Peter Grimes was an opera written with the tenor part crafted for Peter Pears, who was in a spousal relationship (Playbill’s words) with Britten.  The seven scenes of the opera are separated by six interludes, of which Britten extracted four and published them as the piece for today’s performance.  He also renamed the interludes Dawn, Sunday Morning, Moonlight, and Storm.

With 2013 being Britten’s 100th birthday, we certainly have had a lot of exposure to his music last couple of years.  Today’s experience is quite similar: his music is generally pleasant and relatively easy to grasp.  Indeed the moods of the four interludes by-and-large followed their descriptions.  For instance, one could make the case of hearing a sunrise during Dawn, and church bells during Sunday Morning.  (Of course I am not sure I will be that perceptive if they didn’t provide the titles.)  The only exception would be Moonlight.  The title would imply a calm evening with moonlight reflecting off the sea.  That may well be true for Beethoven and Debussy, but here it was more mystery than serenity.

It was a good start for the evening for the young Spanish conductor Heras-Casado.  For me the Storm showcased how he managed to keep the orchestra reined in even during its wilder moments.  He also conducts without a baton.

Bartok’s piano concerto was written during the composer’s last year before he died of leukemia.  It was meant to be performed by his wife Ditta Pasztory-Bartok so she could generate some income from performing it.  Bartok died before the work was completed, his student and friend Tibor Serly orchestrated the incomplete 17 measures.  The three movements are (i) Allegretto; (ii) Allegro religioso – [Poco piu mosso] – Tempo I; and (iii) [Allegro vivace] –[Presto]. His wife went back to Hungary after Bartok’s death and only played the piece in public about 20 years after his death.

All in all a poignant and sad story, but not one reflected in the music.  I agree with the Playbill’s assessment: greatly lyrical, sometimes prayerful, often mysterious, touchingly naturalistic; and wonder how long it took the annotator to come up with these phrases.  I must say I didn’t get the quotations of birdsongs in the middle movement, though.

I have heard Peter Serkin a couple of times before, my assessment today is about the same: I am sure he is a great pianist, given the list of his accomplishments, but the greatness didn’t come through today.  To quote my remark after him playing Bartok’s first piano concerto (2006): I haven’t heard enough of him to form a strong opinion, but I am quite sure he is a great pianist in his own right; and after playing Stravinsky’s Capriccio (2012): Yet one wonders how they compare (talking about his father Rudolf), …, the piano was overwhelmed sometimes by the orchestra, even though Serkin seemed to be pounding away at it.  Well, today is technically a third strike.

And I also heard this same piano concerto before, in a Mostly Mozart performance (2012).  My remark there was the music was easy to understand, and – interestingly – I thought the piano dominated the performance, with the soloist putting in a delightful performance.

It was by this time that I realized the concert was to be longer than usual: we still have a 53 minute symphony ahead of us.  Indeed the two people sitting in front of me left after the intermission.  I am glad I stayed, though.

Of all the Shostakovich symphonies I have heard before (it has not been that many,) this is probably the easiest one to understand.  The symphony starts simply with a Moderato first movement that eventually becomes quite chaotic and complex.  There was ample opportunity for the orchestra to run wild, but Heras-Casado managed to keep things nicely under control.  There are quite a few very pleasant solo passages (e.g., by the clarinet.)  The coda to the rather long movement (about 27 minutes) was a bit inscrutable, though.  The Playbill goes into a discussion of whether the scherzo movement contains a caricature of Stalin, who had died recently.  Under Stalinist Russia, Shostakovich was sometimes praised, and sometimes criticized by the state for writing music that may or may not be appropriately revolutionary.  The markings for the second and third movements are Allegro and Allegretto.  The second movement is lively enough that it could be called a scherzo, and one can hear sarcastic tones in it.  It was short (about 3 minutes) but enjoyable, and ends on a rousing flourish.  Interestingly, the third movement also sounded like a scherzo, but it ends quietly.  The music continues without pause to the fourth movement (Andante – Allegro) which abounds with nice melodies by various instruments, especially those in the woodwind section.  The 53 minutes (advertised) went by quickly.

I don’t know how New York Philharmonic selects conductors for debut appearances.  I would like to think Heras-Casada gets invited back in the near future.

I wanted to stop by Jersey City on my way back, and kept ignoring the GPS’s suggestion that I should take the Lincoln Tunnel.  What a mistake, Jersey City was fixing its potholes and the wait time for Holland Tunnel was up to 90 minutes.  I worked my way across downtown, then up, and across to get to Lincoln.  It was around midnight when I got to Jersey City.

The New York Times review is quite positive, calling Heras-Casado “A Master of Texture.”  The reviewer also likes how the Bartok concerto was performed.

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