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"Hungarian Echoes 1," Haydn, Ligeti, Bartók : Marino Formenti (piano), Esa-Pekka Salonen (guest conductor), New York Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall, New York, 12.3.2011 (BH)

: Symphony No. 6 in D major, Le Matin (The Morning), Hob. I:6 (1761)

Ligeti : Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1985-86/88)

Bartók : Concerto for Orchestra, BB 123, Sz 116 (1943)

A "philosophical pugilist," said my friend about pianist Marino Formenti, whose dazzling reading of Ligeti's Piano Concerto was the highlight the opening of the New York Philharmonic's Hungarian Echoes at Avery Fisher Hall. Formenti, replacing an ailing Pierre-Laurent Aimard, is a formidable champion of contemporary music, and with the clear authority of Esa-Pekka Salonen on the podium, showed Ligeti's score to be one of the late 20th-century's most fascinating. Like many recent works, each hearing brings new pleasures. With a small chamber orchestra (about the same size as the opening Haydn), Ligeti pairs the piano with unusual combinations of instruments; the striking second movement, "Lento e deserto," uses string tremolos, bells and a slide whistle against a subterranean bass drone, ending with a harmonica solo, done here with plaintive assurance by percussionist Daniel Druckman. Formenti must have performed this piece dozens of times, and his command made compelling listening.

As an aside-and I hate having to write this-but some in the audience seemed hell-bent on disrupting Ligeti's gossamer effects; the magnetically quiet slow movement was accompanied by a noticeable chorus of crashingly loud coughs. It was the first time in many years that I actually felt like standing up and yelling to those scattered around the hall, to save the "commentary" for intermission.

But back to the concert, which opened with Haydn's early Symphony No. 6, "Le Matin." Salonen managed a graceful, at time perky account, although I couldn't help but wonder if Haydn is really his métier. In any case, the tempi seemed well-chosen, the ensemble had lithe beauty, and some of the solos, especially those by Assistant Concertmaster Michelle Kim, were deftly done.

Bartók's astringent, powerful Concerto for Orchestra is a showpiece in the right hands. Salonen has those hands, and there were moments when I heard balances created, and instrumental parts emerge that made the piece irresistibly fresh. The somber double bass opening usually doesn't groan as ominously as it did here, with Salonen exercising great patience with the exposition. The "Game of Couples" and "Interrupted Intermezzo" showed the orchestra's typically fine winds, and the central slow movement churned with anxiety and sadness. Salonen detonated the finale at a breathless tempo that I thought would be impossible to sustain, but soon the players showed my anxiety was unfounded, and why Bartók's challenging writing remains one of the mid-20th century's great litmus tests for an orchestra.

Bruce Hodges

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