It was time for the New York Philharmonic’s concert on Thursday night. But the orchestra was not yet onstage. What gave? A single man came out and sat down at an instrument: the cimbalon. This is a percussion instrument and a string instrument, both. It was fashioned in Hungary in the 1870s. And a Hungarian was on hand to play it: Jeno Listzes. (Hey, whaddaya get when you take away the final “es”?)
He played his own arrangement of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Reading about this piece in our program booklet, I had a memory of Lorin Maazel, the late conductor, who once served as the New York Philharmonic’s music director.
The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 was very popular. “The composer is said to have discouraged his students from playing it,” our program booklet informed us, “due to overexposure.”
In 2009, I asked Maazel about performing familiar music—very familiar music. Take Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Was it still glorious and thrilling to him? “It’s as glorious and thrilling as the day it was written,” said Maazel. “If you become jaded because of overexposure, the problem is yours, not the composer’s.”
At any rate, the arrangement by Mr. Lisztes of the Rhapsody is skillful, and so was his execution of it. In his arms is the right combination of looseness and tension (or “firmness,” let’s say). I might note, too, that the cimbalon sounded big in the renovated David Geffen Hall, at least where I sat. A little orchestra.
Why did the Philharmonic have a man play a solo piece—a single-instrument piece—at the beginning of a concert? I have no idea. This is not to say it was a bad idea.
Susanna Mälkki, the Finn, took the stage to conduct the Philharmonic in a Bartók piece: the Romanian Folk Dances. (I should say that the Philharmonic took the stage, too.) The dances were duly dancy. Benjamin Adler was jaunty on his clarinet. Mindy Kaufman was piquant on the piccolo. And Frank Huang, the concertmaster? It is said that every violinist, somewhere in his heart, is a Gypsy. So Huang proved.
The Philharmonic, among other institutions, is marking the centennial of György Ligeti, the Hungarian-Austrian (Austro-Hungarian?) composer. Ligeti died in 2006.
It is always someone’s centennial. For the next issue of National Review, I have written a piece about Maria Callas—who was born on December 2, 1923. Two days ago, on November 1, it was the hundredth birthday of another great soprano, Victoria de los Ángeles.
The Philharmonic programmed Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, written in the mid-1980s. It has, among other things, savage, sudden outbursts. These jolted some people awake. It was unusually hot in David Geffen Hall last night. People were fanning themselves.
Our soloist was Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the French pianist. He is a very capable musician. He is a diligent and conscientious servant of composers, especially of the modernist sort. He used sheet music, and a page-turner.
Two weeks ago, the Philharmonic programmed the Piano Concerto of Elena Firsova, written for Yefim Bronfman, who was the soloist. Let me excerpt what I have written for the next issue of The New Criterion:
Mr. Bronfman used sheet music—proper sheet music, not a computer tablet. He had pages spread out on the rack. When one of them was in danger of falling, the concertmaster, Sheryl Staples, thrust out her bow, holding the page in place. A concertmaster must be alert to many things.
Yes. In any event, M. Aimard left nothing to chance.
Sitting in the hall last night, I wondered how long we would hear the music of György Ligeti. Many people prefer his miniatures to his longer pieces, such as his piano concerto. For years, I heard Elliott Carter and George Perle in New York regularly. Pierre Boulez, too. I have not heard them in years.
Have you ever heard a symphony by Roger Sessions, live in concert? Me neither. He wrote nine of them. He was one of the most famous arts figures in America.
Last month, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened Carnegie Hall’s season with a program that included Pictures at an Exhibition, by Mussorgsky. In my review, I noted that I first knew Pictures as a piano piece. I then said,
Many of us owned the Horowitz record, and we wore the grooves off. I have not heard Pictures on the piano in a long, long time. . . .
My impression is, the world thinks of Pictures as an orchestra piece. Last night, the CSO played it in the Ravel orchestration.
So did the New York Phil. The opening Promenade was magnificent. The principal trumpet, Christopher Martin, played richly and ringingly (not necessarily an easy combination to bring off). The entire brass section was smooth and seamless (and unblaring). The Promenade had grandeur but also forward momentum. It was both vertical and horizontal, if you will—not so grand that it could not walk forward.
Later on, Lino Gomez was alluring on his saxophone. And from the bass clarinet, Barret Ham, there was a wonderful growly assist.
By and large, the movements—the pictures—were characterful and colorful. Maestra Mälkki knows what she is doing. When the chicks danced in their shells, some in the audience laughed, gaily. That is a gratifying response. In some movements, I could have used more suspense, more angularity, more uplift—but this was a fine performance.
May I say, however, that nothing beats a good piano performance? I hope that pianists will not shy away from Pictures, ceding it to orchestras. They should not shy away from Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances either—he wrote this work for piano first.