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Familiar Names, Rare Music

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
04/03/2008 -  and April 5, 6
Ludwig van Beethoven: Leonora Overture No. 2 – Piano Concerto No. 4
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4

Richard Goode (Piano)
New York Philharmonic, Sir Colin Davis (Conductor)

New York audiences feel a sense of assurance when Sir Colin Davis comes to town. Like any conductor, he has his personal domains--Berlioz is virtually synonymous with Davis—but he is so proficient, confident and dedicated to all music that an evening with Sir Colin is bound to be memorable, if not adventurous.

At first glance, last night program hardly seemed adventurous at all, with two works by Beethoven, and another by that old English stalwart and collector of heigh-ninny-no folksongs, Sir Ralph Vaughan Williams. But from first notes to last, Sir Colin made each work a rarity in itself.

Certainly Beethoven’s Leonora No. 2 was new to most listeners. Trying to remember the music of each overlapping Leonora and Fidelio overtures is a hopeless experience, except that last evening’s was the first to be written and the least played. Possibly this is because it is less dramatic than the others, since it seems to follow the opera story (a characteristic of the time, as it was in Shakespeare’s prologues). The tunes sound the same, the trumpet calls are more authentic to those of the opera itself, but it seems a bit lopsided.

Not, though, under the baton of Sir Colin. This was an exercise in tension. He held the New York Philharmonic almost hypnotized for the introduction, introducing the arias of the opera with the same taut feeling. The trumpet calls done, the Phil finished with a presto finale which hardly broke the spell.

Nothing, though, could be more opposed to this titanic Beethoven than the Fourth Piano Concerto played by that ardent Beethoven specialist Richard Goode. Except that one who is schooled in Beethoven, one so drawn to the composer as Richard Goode need never show his heart on his sleeves. Granted the Fourth is the most purely of the concertos. So Sir Colin and Mr. Goode were together in projecting the poetry.

The work has been played with more color, more excitement, yes. What Mr. Goode brought was grace and limpidity, a sheer joy almost unassuming runs up the keyboard ending in a lovely song in thirds. Of taking a reluctant side-road to a minor and feeling better back in the predominantly major key of the work. The finale was given a brisk tempo, so the final acceleration was hardly felt. In essence, then, this was less a cerebration of Beethoven than a celebration. And that itself is a rarity these days.

Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony is supposedly unlike his others in having a fierce dissonant opening movement, a rollicking scherzo, and a series of fugues, canons and marches for a triumphant finale. But Sir Ralph sometimes has a movement which seems almost disembodied, like the finale of the Sixth and the slow movement here. In a way, he is like an English Roy Harris, always on the verge of quoting an old hymn tune, but always original.

Sir Colin seemed to conduct it with all the fierceness it required (and with some beautiful solos by flutist Robert Langevin and tuba-player Alan Baer). Later, I played Sir Ralph’s own recording to find that he had taken it a good three minutes faster than Sir Colin. But I would still trust the Davis version most. He had the orchestra under his spell, and he held the audience with the same mesmeric music.

Harry Rolnick



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