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Modern Masters

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/28/1998 -  
Igor Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements; Firebird Suite
Bela Bartok: Piano Concerti Nos. 1 & 3

Andras Schiff (piano)
Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer (conductor)

After the tepid performance of The Rite of Spring a few weeks ago by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic it was a pleasure to hear a performance of Stravinsky that was both rhythmically incisive and musically emotive. The Symphony in Three Movements was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1946 with the composer conducting but it is hard to believe that the original performance was clearer and more exciting than that of the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Ivan Fischer. Fischer has really improved the sound of this ensemble over the years and the recent addition of Gabor Takacs-Nagy, founder of the Takacs Quartet, as concertmaster has solidified the string section and helped to produce a fine tutti sound. The performance emphasized the jazzy elements of the score (why do only Europeans do this?) and the complex polyrhythms were flawlessly navigated. The only portent of trouble was tentative intonation in the horn section.

Walking down 57th Street towards Carnegie Hall I was concerned that this review might be unnecessarily harsh. After all, Fischer and the Budapest have made their reputation by playing the masterworks of their countryman Bartok and Schiff has recorded the concerti in fine performances as well as a memorable broadcast of the third with the Chicago Symphony under Solti from Budapest. Would they be able to live up to my high expectations? Bartok revolutionized pianistic thought by treating the piano as what it actually is-a percussion instrument. Last night's performance of the Piano Concerto #1 emphasized his innovation by placing the entire percussion section up in front of the orchestra so that it could be an equal partner of the piano, more like the same composer's orchestration of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. From the opening tympani and piano notes this was a fine performance. Mr. Schiff has worked hard to master these difficult pieces and is performing all three this week (the Concerto #2 is scheduled for Friday). He has just the right combination of barbarism and beauty and an unashamed staccato attack not common among the great pianists (Bartok wrote this piece for his own quixotic style of pianism). The second movement of the first concerto is the strangest nine minutes in all of music ("the folk music of another planet" a friend of mine once called it) and the piano and percussion instruments were suitably surrealistic.

One of the personal attributes of Mr. Schiff's third concerto performance is his recognition of the work's kinship to the keyboard chorales of Bach. He, above all others that I have heard, understands the solemnity of the piano passages in the outer sections of the beautiful second movement of this piece which was inspired by the sounds of the birds of Asheville, North Carolina where Bartok was convalescing from his initial bout with leukemia. When the orchestra began its imitation of these forest murmurs we were already feeling that we were in an enchanted place. Perhaps what made these performances of the Bartok concerti so thrilling was that one felt that they were in the presence of experts, cognoscenti who had been justifiably entrusted with the secrets of the composer's inner wishes. As in the first concerto Mr. Schiff ended with a flourish and the appreciate crowd brought him back for several curtain calls. Bartok conceived this concerto with its audience pleasing ending as a vehicle for his dear wife Ditta Pasztory to make badly needed money (although she did not actually perform it for many years after his death) and so the final arpeggios are correspondingly thrilling and relatively easy to pull off. But the conception of the concerto as a whole is far from elementary and it takes a sensitive artist like Mr. Schiff to produce such a fulfilling result.

But it was in the Firebird Suite where this committed ensemble really shone. The Round Dance of the Princesses with its wind quintet orchestration inspired by Rimsky's Scheherazade ("mediocre composers borrow; great composers steal", Stravinsky once said) was replete with beautiful solos. Especially notable was the burnished tone of the bassoon, which would duly impress later as the solo instrument in the Berceuse, and the lovely solos of the oboe. Glenn Gould said that he quit the concert stage because he was "sick of people coming just to hear the horn player flub up" however, and last night's broken notes and embarrassing drops in individual tone ruined this beautiful interplay of wind instruments. The rest of the performance was conducted almost flawlessly (although there was no pause in Kashchei's dance) and Mr. Fischer drew all of the nuances out that most conductors (especially Stravinsky who loathed the piece by the time he conducted it on a regular basis) miss. The Berceuse and Finale could have been a dream performance with the exceptional bassoon and a truly gorgeous string ensemble tone but I was dreading the introduction of the finale's famous folk tune by the horn and sure enough he butchered this simple solo. Even with this serious irritation the conducting was so intelligent that ultimately this performance was very satisfying. Bearing a striking resemblance to Dmitri Mitropoulos up there, Mr. Fischer exhibited his great conductorial skill with a final touch of brilliance. He was very careful to cut off the penultimate note for a nanosecond of silence and then to actually induce a true crescendo from piano to double fortissimo for the last note, a fabulous ending very rarely done correctly (Stravinsky certainly never even attempted this). The effect was dazzling.

Those few New Yorkers who didn't trample each other in the run for the exits (my gracious hosts at Carnegie Hall gave me an aisle seat but that meant that I was kicked several times in my row's stampede) were treated to an encore of a highly spirited version of the last of the orchestrated Rumanian Dances by Bartok. The Budapest Festival Orchestra is one Eastern European group which seems to have survived very well and with Ivan Fischer at the helm should be a leader for years to come. All in all, a truly remarkable concert.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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