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New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
05/29/2008 -  & May 30, 31
Claude Debussy: Three Etudes, arranged by Michael Jarrell (First US performance)
Franz Schubert/Luciano Berio: Rendering for Orchestra
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Opus 73 (“The Emperor”)

Emanuel Ax (Piano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, David Robertson (Conductor)

And here’s to you, Mr Robertson……

In his two-week stint with the NY Phil, David Robertson has resurrected this orchestra—never bad but sometimes dull--e—back to life. Presently with the Saint Louis Orchestra but a champion of contemporary music through his years in Europe, Maestro Robertson has added a vibrancy, a crispness and an uncommon energy to an ensemble which has rested on its laurels and great leaders over the past two centuries. Perhaps because this relatively young Californian has never been categorized, he seems open for any challenge. So his very presence on the dais gives an artistic confidence to his group and his audience.

Typical was his introduction to one of the two “transforming” works last night, this the reworking of Schubert’s elementary notes for a projected 10th symphony. It was a short introduction, but an original one. Even those of us who know the work weren’t aware that n his last month, he had had asked for lessons in counterpoint. One hates hypotheticals, but had Schubert discovered Bach (as Mozart had), who knows what his music would have been?

Mr. Robertson suggested that Berio’s interpolations (in a brilliantly authentic Schubert “orchestration”) were what Schubert might have been thinking. Personally, I had always thought that the added music—blurry sounds, some atonal babblings, measures which seemed to live and die without any reference—were what the work would have been had Schubert been completing it in 1990, when Berio wrote it.

In either case, the “Schubert” side of the music was conducted with grandeur by Mr. Robertson, so grand that the added measures seemed an nebulous imposition. Interesting idea, but maybe not necessary.

The other metamorphoses were most unlikely: an orchestration by Swiss composer Michael Jarrell of Debussy’s last piano pieces, written in 1915. Debussy wrote them in personal depression but composed them with such finesse that they seem other-worldly on the piano. Jarrell, working with a small orchestra, wanted, perhaps to bring the last three of the études down to earth, and Jarrell accomplished this with infinite care.

The ninth etude, Pour les notes répétés, is a light dry toccata which exercises the fingers endlessly. Jarrell, though, played with it like Webern’s Bach arrangement, with each of the first notes given to a different instrument, until the entire orchestra took up the call. Yes, it was a different mood from the original, but one could hear literal echoes from La Mer or Images. The following Pour les sonorités opposés is, on piano, a search for colors from legato, held notes, and shadings. But the final Debussy etude, for chords, was the most exciting, a buoyant work with trumpets and strings together with dance rhythms from Iberia . Whether Debussy would have said of Jarrell’s work, as he did of his own “I am happy. It is good.”, we will never know.

Probably the majority of the audience came to hear Emanuel Ax on Beethoven. Words do no justice for Mr. Ax’s brilliant playing, his jaunty style, his relationship with the orchestra, and—like Maestro Robertson—as a master of pure energy. That first movement was so martial, with both piano and orchestra, that (as the cliché goes), we were ready to march on Poland. The second movement was delicately played, and the finale was the most dance-like imaginable.

One could speak about the almost holy quiet moments, the so subtle crescendos, the almost ravishing joy which soloist and conductor obviously felt. But nobody who hears Emanuel Ax will bother to read these words, words, words….

Yet one coda must be mentioned. After four standup audience calls—not for encores but simply appreciation—Mr. Ax sat down and played the slow movement from Schubert’s A Major Sonata, opus 120. This reviewer doesn’t know for certain, but it seems that the ebullient Mr. Ax was perhaps thinking, “Well, Luciano Berio did a nice job in re-orchestrating Schubert. But if you want to hear the real Schubert, I’m your guy!”

Harry Rolnick



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