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S & H Concert Review

Adés, Beethoven, Brahms, Orchestre de Paris, Salle Pleyel, February 27, 2002 (FC)


A week after his London engagement, we find Christoph von Dohnányi conducting a different program with the Orchestre de Paris in the historic and soon to be renovated Salle Pleyel. With Alfred Brendel as piano soloist in the Beethoven First Piano Concerto and the Brahms Second after the intermission, it was not surprising to find the hall sold out.

What was surprising is how the orchestra adapted to the conducting style of a different conductor with such equanimity. A week before Christoph Eschenbach, their regular musical director, was conducting the Mahler Ninth. Eschenbach has the orchestra sounding like a modern American orchestra (i.e. clear instrumental textures, edges) but Dohnányi prefers the old Central European sound (i. e. blended instrumental textures, no edges) and the orchestra was happy to oblige. The high-calorie richness of the strings and the warm enveloping sound was impressive and especially effective in the Brahms.

Dohnányi is a fine advocate for Beethoven and he and Brendel were an impressive team. The concerto was played with measured intensity and majesty and both artists shared the same musical impulse. It was in the First Movement cadenza that Brendel really took flight. He took us through the cadenza like we were on a racetrack in a Ferrari; it was a feat of exhilarating virtuosity. He shows no signs of slowing down and his brave and noble reading of this early work was an impressive achievement.

The Brahms Second Symphony, after the intermission, with its leisurely tempos and warm texture, was not what you would hear from the younger set of conductors. This time-tested traditional approach worked well when combined with Dohnányi's sure musical sense and the grandeur of the music was never more evident.

Starting the evening was a major work from 1997, Asyla, by the young (31 years old) Thomas Adés. Sharing the stage with two of his illustrious predecessors in a regular season concert with a 25 minute work is no longer a new thing for this wunderkind. Programmed often before by Dohnányi, he is potentially England's best composer since Britten. Listening to the work, I could not help but think of another alternative soul, Charles Ives, who, after graduation from Harvard, proceeded to forget everything he was ever taught and set about creating music of with a distinctive stamp and a wilful irreverence.

And like bad boy Ives, you get bits and snatches of other composers (a parody or a homage? - it is hard to say) and in the present instance, even a bit of disco music. The third of four movements is the only with a title: "Ectasio." Here he passes the same theme around to different sections of the orchestra á la Bolero and ends with an offbeat fortissimo bang. It is witty, funny and clever music that shows a masterful skill of orchestration. The large percussion section gives punctuation marks to his flouting of conventional forms yet the music, although complex, is not at all inaccessible.

Frank Cadenhead







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