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MUSIC REVIEW

Powerful performances with an undercurrent of dissent

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / February 24, 2009
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Two artifacts of musical nationalism were offered by Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic over the weekend: Sergei Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto and Witold Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra. It was, interestingly, the more patriotically qualified of the pair that produced the most committed drama.

Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto opens with a most recognizably Russian theme, a bittersweet major-minor chant of sober rhythmic cast. (Perhaps a bit of self-branding: The piece was written as a calling-card for Rachmaninoff's first American tour.) But the music also takes up Tchaikovsky's glittering mantle, demanding as much delicacy as power.

The increasingly famous pianist Gabriela Montero - seen last month on the presidential inaugural platform - dispatched the concerto's formidable technical challenges with an ease that at times verged on the casual, giving much of her phrasing an inward, reticent turn. Zander's pacing was efficiently grand, expansive but unsentimental. A big sound from soloist and orchestra saturated the music's surface but sometimes obscured its depths; dynamics covered a wide range but were usually blocked into one or two monochromatic planes. The gossamer textures of the Intermezzo were enervated, but the finale had a tight, sturdy power. It was a solid, stalwart account.

Montero announced that she had considered forgoing one of her signature improvised encores after the "30-course dinner" of the concerto, but relented. ("Either Ben will kill me," she joked, "or I'll leave some people disappointed.") After Zander himself suggested a tune - somewhat redundantly, Rachmaninoff's opening theme - Montero obliged with a late-romantic rhapsody that opened into Latin territory reminiscent of Albeniz.

The family resemblance to Bartok is easily heard in Lutoslawski's 1954 Concerto, but so is the edge in Lutoslawski's compositional voice, the impatience with the Polish folk-music material adopted to appease official Communist circles; within the decade, Lutoslawski would unveil a new vocabulary, atonal and aleatoric. Hints of that later style abound - the fluid shifts between instrumental families, the divergent paths to a common arrival point. But most striking are the musical transformations simply by change of assignment: The opening's thudding timpani becomes a quietly tolling celesta, the Capriccio's violin rustle ends up a whispered conspiracy between basses and percussion.

The performance was one of the best things the Philharmonic has done in recent seasons. The group coupled their traditional strengths - energy and rhythmic drive - to a constant, vibrant delight in Lutoslawski's polished, resourceful orchestration. Galvanized by its undercurrent of dissent, it was a nationalist showpiece of dark, furious sparkle.

BOSTON PHILHARMONIC Benjamin Zander, conductor

With Gabriela Montero, piano

At: Jordan Hall, Saturday

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