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Seen and Heard International Concert Review




Ravel, Ligeti, Bartók: Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 10.12.2006 (BH)



Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911)

Ligeti: Piano Concerto (1985-86; 1987-88)

Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19 (1917-19, orch. 1924; rev. 1926-31)



Holiday treats don’t get much more dazzling than afternoons like this one.  This afternoon was doubly welcome following a Mahler Seventh Symphony two nights earlier, which brought out the best in Boulez as architect, but showed an ensemble a little rough around the edges, as if travel had taken its (temporary) toll.  It wasn’t a bad concert at all, just not at the level that we expect from this group.  But by Sunday afternoon, all was back to normal.

Anyone who has heard Pierre Boulez in his Ravel recordings knows that he has a special empathy for the master colorist, treating him with precision yet with warmth and yes, feeling.  In this supremely graceful Valses nobles et sentimentales, the pacing, the contrasts, and the wondrous contributions from every member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made the work’s elegance leap off the stage.

Somehow the sound effects in the Ligeti Piano Concerto have yet to become stale.  The context allows a slide whistle and ocarina to become rather plaintive, as if they wished to be recognized as “serious” members of the orchestra.  The first movement owes a great debt to jazz, with its constantly pulsing rhythms darting back and forth at different speeds, leaving the listener with the impression of viewing a busy, honking street corner flooded with traffic from all directions.  The second movement begins with the piccolo and bassoon in a bizarre embrace, then joined by the aforementioned non-traditional instruments, and ultimately adding a harmonica.  By the time the frantic final movement arrives, one’s perception of sound and motion has been subtly altered, and the sudden arrival of a wood block at the ending seems like a door slamming shut.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard is probably the current master of this concerto – he’s on the Boulez recording with the Ensemble Intercontemporain – and one of the indicators is his willingness to slightly submerge his formidable voice at the piano, which is sometimes treated as just another member of the ensemble.  With its intimate proportions using roughly fifteen musicians, the concerto is a curious mix of the composer’s obsessions with African polyrhythms and his sly sense of humor.  Aimard’s virtuosity in navigating some formidable technical demands was balanced by his deadpan outlook, and his Chicago collaborators were clearly inspired to deliver their quirky best.

In marked contrast to the first half, the stage floor must have been groaning with the extra musicians crowding in for Bartók’s scorching ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin.  The grisly, strange story is illuminated by some of the composer’s tensest, most high-octane dissonances, and Boulez and this sensational group gave it the most violent reading I expect to hear in a very long time.  Similar to his work with Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps last year, Boulez lets the hysteria speak for itself.  His focus is squarely on the score, without trying to smooth out any rough edges, and this meant some brass with an almost blinding glare, huge circus-like glissandi, and strings launching feverish attacks, like showers of spears.  Boulez elicited some of the most distinguished orchestral playing I’ve heard all year, and I felt as if I were holding on to the end of a live wire with every last volt ripping through my brain for half an hour.  The funny thing is how pleasurable that sensation can be.



Bruce Hodges



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