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Berliners in New York (II), Adès, Mozart, Ravel: Emanuel Ax, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 28.01.06 (BH)



Thomas Adès: Asyla, Op. 17 (1997, New York Premiere)
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major, K. 271, "Jeunehomme" (c. 1777)
Ravel: Ma Mère l'Oye (Mother Goose) (1911)

Percussion list for Asyla: timpani, roto-toms, 5 bongos, 2 bell plates, cowbells, tubular bells, Chinese cymbals, 2 hi-hats, 3 tin cans, geophone, 2 water gongs (also played dry), 2 ratchets, washboard, tam-tam, 2 bass drums, 11 gongs, crash cymbals, 4 suspended cymbals, small choke cymbal, sizzle cymbal, side drums, sandpaper blocks, bag full of metal knives and forks (struck flat), glockenspiel, crotales, kit bass drum (laid flat), grand piano, two upright pianos (one tuned a quarter-tone low).

Yes, in the list above that would be three pianos, but frankly, it’s the “bag full of metal knives and forks (struck flat)” that won me over, as my personal initiation into the netherworld of kitchen utensils on the Carnegie Hall stage.  For
Thomas Adès’ exhilarating free-for-all (not really, but it sounds like it now and then), the Berlin Philharmonic must have called in every percussionist on its roster, since the array of instruments stretched completely across the back wall of the stage.

Here are the titles of the four movements, exactly as they appeared in the program:




III.         Ecstasio


One might be tempted to bask in the sheer sonic delight pouring from the massively assembled forces, but like the Kyburz Noesis two nights before, Adès offers interesting payoffs for one’s investment.  The first movement opens with darkly glittering percussion eventually leading to a unison passage for the horns.  The second is relatively slow-moving, and features a figure for the bass oboe, with the ensemble locked in repeated, tightly confined gestures.  The third movement is a sort of disco nightmare, whose delirious, thudding surges seem to be the heart of the piece, while the fourth returns to quietude except for a huge blast near the end, just before everything evaporates.  This is an absolutely delicious, jarringly original score, an edgy marriage of the profound and the banal, and it is easy to see why it was a seemingly immediate hit with audiences and critics.  (For those wanting a taste, it has been recorded as the opener on Rattle’s DVD with a fine Mahler Fifth Symphony.)

The congenial Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9 was sparked with wit, not only from the composer but also from Emanuel Ax, whose contributions made the piece even more memorable.  In the opening movement, the back-and-forth rapport with the orchestra was occasionally almost hilarious.  The second movement was perhaps the highlight, with Ax in thoughtfully virtuosic form, throwing out moments almost imperceptibly soft (with audience focus to match) and some sublime heights from the Berlin oboes.  More humor infused the final movement, including Ax subtly underlining the minuet that appears, and then near the end, seemingly wandering off into the ether before the orchestra charges in to close down the proceedings.  After this, I felt a bit regretful that I couldn’t attend the previous night, an all-Mozart evening marking the composer’s 250th birthday, which a friend said was about as good as bisesquicentennial parties get.

To end the orchestra’s four-night stand with Ravel’s Ma Mère l'Oye seemed a bit daring, considering some of the bigger firecrackers on display the previous evenings.  What came through loud and clear was Rattle’s love for the score, as well as the ardor of many of the musicians.  Some of those not currently engaged could be seen sitting back with dreamy looks, lost in Ravel’s childlike fantasy world and clearly enjoying their colleagues, such as the extraordinary lyricism from the bassoons.  The Berlin harp underscored a gauzy, fairytale delicacy that didn’t really appear before this final piece – rather amazing that Rattle & Co. would save some surprises until the very end.

To introduce the sole encore of the week, Rattle turned and pleaded with those trying to catch trains to linger, for just two minutes of “something French.”  This remarkable ensemble then alighted on Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1 (in its arrangement by Debussy), leaving this powerhouse of an orchestra to exit on the gentlest breath imaginable.



Bruce Hodges


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