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S & H International Concert Review

Haydn, Poulenc, Shostakovich, Katia and Marielle Labèque, pianos, New York Philharmonic, Antonio Pappano, conductor (New York Philharmonic debut), Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, Saturday, February 21, 2004 (BH)



Haydn: Symphony No. 22 in E-flat major, "Philosopher," Hob. I:22

Poulenc: Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 in E-minor, Op. 93



Leave it to an opera conductor – Antonio Pappano, now at Covent Garden and making his New York Philharmonic debut at these concerts – to wring the maximum amount of drama from the Poulenc Concerto, normally dispatched a bit more frothily than it was here. With the orchestra’s percussion players using castanets to great comic effect and the giddy Labèque sisters sailing along madly, the rest of the orchestra sounded a little more explosive than usual, perhaps rather "un-Poulenc-ian" but exciting just the same. If in the final Presto I feared the tempo was really just too fast, the two soloists didn’t seem to mind in the least, positively devouring Pappano’s eyebrow-raising speeds and still managing to keep the piano lines clear in the texture. Acknowledging the applause, the pair returned and seated themselves at a single piano, tossing off an unusual and highly amusing encore, the Polka for Piano Four-Hands by Adolfo Berio (grandfather of Luciano), that lasts fifty-seven seconds (at least, on the Labèques’ recording of it). Despite the work’s bravura requirements, at one point Katia casually crossed her legs and gazed out into the audience in mock boredom, drawing gales of laughter from the crowd. We could probably use a bit more of this kind of humor in the concert hall.

Who would have thought that during the evening the piccolo would have such a sensational day in the sun, but that is exactly what happened after intermission in the Shostakovich Tenth, with the Philharmonic’s Mindy Kaufman at her most mesmerizing. Both the first and third movements end with conspicuous – and in the first movement conspicuously naked – roles for this instrument, and she just did a fabulous job. While Philip Myers also deservedly received one of the loudest ovations for his piercing horn work, to my ears it was Kaufman who stole the show.

The Tenth is one of the composer’s most imposing works, with his signature "D-S-C-H" motto appearing seemingly dozens of times, climaxing in the final movement when the entire orchestra issues it in unison at a fearsomely loud volume level. Pappano got a terrific response from the orchestra, despite (or perhaps because of) his tendency to take parts of the score much faster than usual. The beginning of the savage Allegro, one of the most virtuosic four minutes in symphonic literature, apparently caught the orchestra just a trifle off guard, and the ensemble seemed to need just a few seconds for everyone to agree on a tempo. But when everyone caught up, the result was pure cyclone. The final measure, a scale that rushes upward to an abrupt conclusion, was done so cleanly, and ended so suddenly, that for once during the evening the seemingly nonstop coughing in the audience was silenced.

Also impressive was the fiery yet even-toned work from the Philharmonic’s brass players, and (again) the orchestra’s percussion section that negotiated all of the composer’s hurdles with marvelous aplomb. The last movement had the string sections working as if possessed, coupled with amazing bassoon and clarinet work leading into the final few minutes, all of which left the audience no choice but to summon out Pappano four times at the end.

The opener was a charming Haydn symphony that I did not know. Its unusual wind and brass instrumentation uses only English horns and French horns, and its introspective character fits neatly with its "Philosopher" subtitle. Actually, it was a fittingly philosophical performance – a fine, thoughtful little appetizer before the major adrenalin that began to flow afterward.

Bruce Hodges




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