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Bartók, Dutilleux, Rachmaninoff: Leonidas Kavakos, violin, New York Philharmonic, Iván Fischer, conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 3.12.2995 (BH)



Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances, BB 76 (1915; orch. 1917)

Dutilleux: L’Arbre des Songes (Tree of Dreams): Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1979-85)

Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-08)



It takes a master to freshen up Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, and that’s exactly who was at the helm on Saturday night, when Iván Fischer led a bracing evening with the New York Philharmonic.  From the beginning (and using the complete, uncut version of the piece), Fischer chose swift-but-not-too-fast tempi and maintained precise rhythms that prevented the work from becoming cloying.  This tight rein was just the beginning of what turned into one of the finest performances of this symphony I have ever heard, but it was accuracy coupled with humanity that made the reading so powerful.  The second movement was a joy: the composer as an ebullient, fleet-footed Mercury, and the gorgeous Adagio, with some haunting playing by Stanley Drucker on clarinet, was utterly devoid of syrup – only tender elegance that reached its apex in the climax with the strings, high above the stave, in the closing measures.  In the final movement, Fischer revealed much more inner detail (and it’s all in the score) than some who merely make a wild grab for the melodies, beautiful though they are. This was a well-thought case for a piece that is too often played by rote.

Henri Dutilleux’s star seems to be rising, which is not surprising with works like this one, and as emphatically played by Leonidas Kavakos (whom I just heard last April in an equally probing Sibelius Violin Concerto), it was a joy to discover yet another marvelous work from this composer.  The structure is in four parts, separated by three orchestral interludes, all with immaculately conceived, with intricate detail and highly imaginative coloring from the (huge) ensemble.  The percussion section is crucial: the violin opens against a gently rustling pool of quiet cymbals, and later there is a short, striking phrase for violin and timpani in parallel motion.  Meanwhile, similar to the composer’s Symphony No. 2, “Le Double,” the keyboards in the ensemble – piano, celesta, glockenspiel, vibraphone, harp and crotales – are united in crisply tinkling clouds (I know that sounds like a bizarre oxymoron.) through which the soloist and orchestra wind through like a sparkling river.

Although Dutilleux has written that he wanted to write “for a great soloist without making sacrifices to pure virtuosity,” there are plenty of moments to give a great violinist a workout.  Kavakos was sheer poetry everywhere, often emerging from the orchestral texture, and then plunging back into the thick of the composer’s dreamlike sound world.  Those who wonder about great orchestral writing in the early 1980s need look no further than this glittering example.

The concert opened with Romanian Folk Dances, seven minutes of spirited joy, which Fischer directed with vigor and polish.  He is renowned for his Bartók, and it was easy to see why in this confident reading with keen attention, again to the rhythmic nuances.  Sheryl Staples, the concertmaster, enjoyed a brief but memorable solo in the midst of the folk whirlwinds being whipped up, and the orchestra demonstrated once again the kind of musicianship and concentration that lately is packing in the crowds.  (This evening appeared to be sold out.)  As an added indicator, the audience seemed miraculously quiet.  On a related note, the Philharmonic has begun making pleas to silence mobile phones at the beginning of the program, and after intermission as well.  Overkill?  Perhaps, but this is our world at the moment, and since I heard numerous phones being turned off after each announcement, it’s an excellent, if slightly sad, idea.



Bruce Hodges



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)