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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Bamberg Symphony in New York (I): Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Piano, Stiftung Bamberger Symphoniker – Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie, Jonathan Nott, Chief Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 6 May, 2005 (BH)

Ligeti: Lontano (1967)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806)
Ligeti: Etudes for Solo Piano, Nos. 12, 3, 6, 2, 4, 1 (1985-94)
Mahler: Todtenfeier (1888)
Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a (1806)

This must be the most bizarrely assembled concert I’ve been to in years, and that’s saying something. How many evenings would open with Ligeti, followed by Beethoven, then break for a solo piano recital of more Ligeti, and then pile on Mahler’s enormous draft of the first movement of the Second Symphony, followed by a Beethoven work that typically begins a program? This was as brash a line-up as I’ve seen, and Jonathan Nott (whom I had not heard live before) should be congratulated for mixing it up a bit, upending the traditional expectations to carve out something new.

The Ligeti Lontano might have been worth the entire evening. Radical in its day, it explores color, texture and shape rather than melody or harmony, not to mention anything remotely resembling counterpoint. Ligeti creates shimmering sound clouds, often using an entire division of the orchestra (i.e., winds, strings or brass) that softly dissolve and reassemble, challenging the listener to approach the idea of music in a completely new way. Rather than a single part for the first violins, for example, the score has a part for virtually each individual, whose clusters of notes create the composer’s unearthly effects. The Bamberg orchestra’s slightly wiry sound was well suited to these textural experiments, and further, Nott conjured up a three-dimensional sound picture, with beautiful gradations and shadings gently oozing into one another, as if the sound were gently washing up on a deserted beach, over and over. At the close, Nott stood frozen as a statue, gracefully encouraging the hypnotic spell of the work to sink in.

I have not yet heard Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s set of the complete Beethoven piano concerti, a deficiency that will probably change after this superb Fourth, which caused a friend with me to remark, “Now I get it.” In three months’ time, I’ve also heard performances by Radu Lupu and Mitsuko Uchida, but as stirring as these were, Aimard seemed in a class by himself, collaborating with Nott and the orchestra with lithe grace that was wondrous to observe. Aimard seems to have it all these days: masterful phrasing, well-placed pedal work, a wide range of dynamics, and articulation that makes the piano line appear to be dancing on top of the orchestra. The second movement was especially fine, with the orchestra’s stentorian queries answered by Aimard’s plaintive fingerwork. Refined dialogue like this is exactly what a great concerto should be.

Most programs that include Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 place it at the beginning, but Nott had other ideas, and somehow this concert led inexorably to a reading that was almost more violent than the Mahler. The Bamberg ensemble plays Beethoven with stirring passion, with a combination of steeliness and sheer guts that might be close to what Beethoven himself might have witnessed.

As if this hefty assortment were not enough, Nott had prepared an encore: the very first of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, No. 1, titled “Furiant.” This orchestra was founded after World War II by émigrés from Prague, and in their delicious aperitif one could sense the Czech heritage surging forward in every bar, right up through the electric conclusion.

Bruce Hodges

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