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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Beethoven, Liszt, Prokofiev:
Louis Lortie (piano) New York Philharmonic / Kurt Masur, Avery Fisher Hall, New York, 21.1.2006 (BH)


Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, “Pastoral” (1808)

Liszt: Fantasy on Motifs from Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens, for Piano and Orchestra (1848-52; 1855)

Liszt: Totentanz (Dance of Death) for Piano and Orchestra (1847-ca. 1862)

Prokofiev: Scythian Suite (1915)



Sometimes we take things for granted and only appreciate their value when they disappear.  This thought was running through my head all night when Kurt Masur returned to lead the New York Philharmonic in an evening of old friends mixed with at least one rarity, all superbly realized.  The opening Beethoven Sixth was a model of simplicity and proportion, and I defy anyone to resist Masur’s approach: strong but lithe, and bucolic yet thunderous where it mattered.  The Philharmonic’s strings were positively radiant, helped by some smiling work from the woodwinds, such as in the Andante: Scene by the Brook, where the flute and oboe were virtually flirting with each other.


I bet Louis Lortie would be good playing in a small jazz club.  His virtuosity in the two Liszt pieces was matched with some keenly attentive listening and some subtle humor – not that anyone would find either of these particularly laugh-out-loud funny.  The Fantasy on Motifs from Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens is a bit of a lost gem (it hadn’t been performed by the Philharmonic since 1971), and at about twelve minutes, would it hurt to hear it once every five years?  The piano’s entrance is startling.  After the orchestra begins in a rather formal, stately mode for a minute or so, the piano barges in with what initially sounds like a borderline atonal outburst, as if Art Tatum had written a cadenza to a Mozart piano concerto.  There is constant push and pull between orchestral elegance and the piano’s florid outbursts, and the fearsome piano part seemingly posed no challenges to Lortie, who tossed it off as if it were “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”  Many in the audience were standing to cheer when he finished. 


To enjoy its companion, the more ubiquitous Totentanz, one really, really needs to like the “Dies Irae.”  After the malicious opening, the nonstop variations begin, including a charming section in the middle reharmonized in a major key, as if death is embraced as some kind of miraculous ecstatic state.  Like the Fantasy, Totentanz is also intimidatingly scored for the piano, and hesitant fingers need not apply.  Particularly indicative of Lortie’s wit and technique were the glissandi near the end, each one perfectly shaped and articulated, and an equally crisp ensemble matched his crisp playing.


If when writing his Scythian Suite Prokofiev was indeed influenced somewhat by hearing Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, perhaps we should just enjoy the offspring without trying to take issue with the 24-year-old mimicking his mentor.  Hey, if I’d heard Le Sacre on its first night I’d probably rush to write something in that vein, too.  Whatever the case, Prokofiev’s brash bit of barbarism is filled with glittering colors, abrasive textures, slashing chords and enough propulsive rhythmic drive to awaken the most jaded listener.  I was astonished by the amount of detail that Masur found in the score.  (Not to mention, sheer volume: just prior to the final few measures in the last movement, Lolly’s Pursuit of the Evil God and Sunrise, one of the violinists paused to install earplugs.)  Masur’s gestures were so small that most of the time I couldn’t even see his hands, yet the sound ripped through the room as if the sun itself had cracked through the back wall.


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)