A week after his London engagement, we find Christoph
von Dohnányi conducting a different program with the Orchestre
de Paris in the historic and soon to be renovated Salle Pleyel. With
Alfred Brendel as piano soloist in the Beethoven First Piano
Concerto and the Brahms Second after the intermission, it was not surprising
to find the hall sold out.
What was surprising is how the orchestra adapted to
the conducting style of a different conductor with such equanimity.
A week before Christoph Eschenbach, their regular musical director,
was conducting the Mahler Ninth. Eschenbach has the orchestra sounding
like a modern American orchestra (i.e. clear instrumental textures,
edges) but Dohnányi prefers the old Central European sound (i.
e. blended instrumental textures, no edges) and the orchestra was happy
to oblige. The high-calorie richness of the strings and the warm enveloping
sound was impressive and especially effective in the Brahms.
Dohnányi is a fine advocate for Beethoven and
he and Brendel were an impressive team. The concerto was played with
measured intensity and majesty and both artists shared the same musical
impulse. It was in the First Movement cadenza that Brendel really took
flight. He took us through the cadenza like we were on a racetrack in
a Ferrari; it was a feat of exhilarating virtuosity. He shows no signs
of slowing down and his brave and noble reading of this early work was
an impressive achievement.
The Brahms Second Symphony, after the intermission,
with its leisurely tempos and warm texture, was not what you would hear
from the younger set of conductors. This time-tested traditional approach
worked well when combined with Dohnányi's sure musical sense
and the grandeur of the music was never more evident.
Starting the evening was a major work from 1997, Asyla,
by the young (31 years old) Thomas Adés. Sharing the stage with
two of his illustrious predecessors in a regular season concert with
a 25 minute work is no longer a new thing for this wunderkind. Programmed
often before by Dohnányi, he is potentially England's best composer
since Britten. Listening to the work, I could not help but think of
another alternative soul, Charles Ives, who, after graduation from Harvard,
proceeded to forget everything he was ever taught and set about creating
music of with a distinctive stamp and a wilful irreverence.
And like bad boy Ives, you get bits and snatches of
other composers (a parody or a homage? - it is hard to say) and in the
present instance, even a bit of disco music. The third of four movements
is the only with a title: "Ectasio." Here he passes the same theme around
to different sections of the orchestra á la Bolero and ends with
an offbeat fortissimo bang. It is witty, funny and clever music that
shows a masterful skill of orchestration. The large percussion section
gives punctuation marks to his flouting of conventional forms yet the
music, although complex, is not at all inaccessible.