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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Fauré, MacMillan, Beethoven: Martha Argerich, Piano, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 12 April, 2005 (BH)

Fauré: Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 80 (1898)
MacMillan: Symphony No. 3, "Silence" (2003, New York Premiere)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15 (1795; revised 1800-01)

A sensuous Fauré Pelléas et Mélisande suite began last night’s program, which showed off Charles Dutoit’s strengths and some velvety playing by the Philadelphia Orchestra. I can’t recall the last time I heard this piece, and it’s a beauty. In four sections totaling about twenty minutes, it opens and closes with quietly shadowed passages, with livelier dances in between. There has always been much talk in recent years about the changed texture of the ensemble’s strings – an observation I don’t always hear – but this showed them off handsomely, and others, too. Dutoit singled out Jeffrey Khaner on flute, Ricardo Morales on clarinet and Daniel Matsukawa on bassoon for well-deserved ovations.

It is a strong new piece that can make an impression when Martha Argerich is waiting in the wings, and James MacMillan’s intriguing Symphony No. 3, with its ambiguous, understated subtitle was just about perfect for the task. “Silence” comes from the novel by Japanese writer Shusaku Endo, from whom MacMillan has extracted the idea that silence is not absence but presence – very John Cage. In this case the word might be a bit ironic, since yes, there are occasional silences, but only sandwiched in between the composer’s typical bursts of orchestral clamor.

Mr. Dutoit has championed this work since he gave its world premiere in 2003, and there is much to be said for becoming so familiar with a contemporary score. His expertise was evident from the opening, and didn’t lag over a span of about thirty minutes. MacMillan uses a vivid palette, including many delicate glissandi in narrow intervals (seconds and thirds) for strings and trombones, embellished with bells, blocks or softly struck gongs. Instruments group together, then elastically stretch apart, sliding into more episodes, punctuated by silence. It’s a bit difficult to fathom the work’s structure completely after a single hearing, but this is powerfully expressive writing, filled with ache and sensuous textures, and yet still charged with electricity. Judging from the audience reaction, the score clearly transfixed listeners, and it will probably grow more interesting with further hearings.


What more can be said of a legend for whom superlatives often seem feeble? After intermission, Martha Argerich strode out to the piano to a typically feverish reception, and after the perfunctory bow, and then delicately placing a handkerchief on the strings inside the piano (a charming ritual I somehow have never noticed before), she delivered one of the finest Beethoven First Piano Concertos I can recall, riddled through and through with humor. With an orchestra greatly reduced from the sprawling MacMillan, Dutoit launched an elegantly proportioned introduction. When Argerich entered, I had the uncanny sense that the piano keys had already been moving before her fingers had touched them. Not only was her articulation more or less beyond belief, but her expressive skills were a wonder, with pianissimos always projected and audible. Those quiet moments made the second movement magical. At her best, Argerich finds the pure joy in performance that great artists achieve more often than others.

As she dived into the final Rondo: Allegro, the opening theme fairly exploded with an easy virtuosity that made me want to laugh out loud. Dutoit and the orchestra followed right along in tight formation, without any of the tempi bickering between Argerich and her colleagues that sometimes trails in her wake, even though sometimes this tension can be exciting. (Consider her recording with Riccardo Chailly of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, in which she dashes off madly with her partners sometimes struggling to keep up with her.) Here it was fascinating to watch her hands sometimes moving as if attached to two entirely different people in a dialogue with each other, yet each linked by the same stunning articulation. But lest one think that her greatness is only about accuracy, she has colors, too. In the tiny moment of calm near the end, she suddenly drew out an intimate, tinkling sound that might have been from a music box, before Dutoit and the players charged in with the dramatic conclusion.

This was precise, utterly brilliant playing that one just doesn’t hear all that often – in any repertoire. Returning for an encore to even louder cheers from the audience, as Dutoit and the members of the orchestra smiled broadly and joined in the enthusiastic applause, everyone quickly quieted to watch Ms. Argerich do Bach’s Bourées I and II from English Suite No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 807. But it was the sunny final movement of the Beethoven that had me chuckling for days afterward.

Bruce Hodges

Bernard Jacobson also reviewed this concert in Philadelphia: review here.

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