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New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
03/09/2009 -  & March 5, 6, 7, 2009 (Chicago)
Leos Janácek: Sinfonietta
Karol Szymanowski: Violin Concerto No. 1, Opus 35
Igor Stravinsky: Pulcinella, Ballet in One Act with Song

Frank Peter Zimmermann (Violin), Roxana Constaninescu (Mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Phan (Tenor), Kyle Ketelsen (Bass-baritone)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez (Conductor)

Pierre Boulez (© Peter Checchia)

Pierre Boulez arranges his concerts like he conducts his music: with exactitude, logic and almost frigid balance. His first of two evenings with the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra brought forth a trio from three different East European countries. Each combined materials from their own homelands, but each was heavily overlaid with French impressionistic influences. Each of the three composers was idiosyncratic, with few antecedents and (except for one) no musical descendants. Every work was totally different in effect, yet they were written within ten years of each other.

The results of the two most popular pieces were charming, seriously pleasant, sometimes damned beautiful. The rare violin concerto by Karol Szymanowski was none of the above. His First Violin Concerto, not because of its relative unfamiliarity, was absolutely gripping.

This was literally true, since Szymanowski followed no rules of his own. His influences were Scriabin, Ravel and certainly Stravinsky, but his was the mind of an aesthete, so his music could be luxurious, glowing, elegant—with little substance behind it.

This Violin Concerto is a masterpiece of wonderful sounds, but those trying to follow its structure probably gave up after awhile. The one-movement work winds around and around with stunningly beautiful themes. The soloist must have a devil of a time, not simply because of the technical challenges but because the solo intertwines with the orchestra and the equally virtuosic piano part. But to the patient listener, this is lovely music indeed.

Frank Peter Zimmermann was the man for the job. His Stradivarius gave the most lovely tones, and in the finger-twisting cadenza, he had a vitally sure hand. Maestro Boulez, that ineffable master of aural balance, kept the massive Chicago Symphony in almost a chamber mode, with the result that the Polish composer’s orchestra became a thing of almost fragile delicacy.

At times, one wishes that Mr. Boulez let himself go a wee bit more than he did. New York has had a profusion of Leoš Janácek this year, most of it those amorphous inward piano pieces. Nothing, though is introspective about the Sinfonietta, with those great fanfares—would you believe fourteen solo trumpets??—strange instrumental ensembles and some lively tunes.

Maestro Boulez made certain that every solo fanfare was clipped and every ensemble fanfare was liquidy legato, and every timpani pounding was just the right sound. It was a Sinfonietta to respect and treasure, but it didn’t quite have that illusion of a free-for-all start and finish which makes the piece such joy.

The Boulez finesse was right on form for the complete Stravinsky Pulcinella, that delicious mélange of little pieces by Pergolesi (and as we now know, more obscure composers of the early 18th Century). Stravinsky never really liked Pergolesi (he later said that his favorite work by the Italian was his own!), and actually satirized much of the music. It was light satire, though, a few extraneous notes placed here and there, rhythms a bit off-beat, the squareness of the melodies broken up into less obvious geometric forms.

The Chicago Symphony was truncated, to solo winds and brass, a quintet of solo strings and a smaller string section. But they did have the addition of three excellent soloists. For the solos, duets and trios are amongst the loveliest pieces of the work.

At the end of this week, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra will play the Pulcinella Suite, which may seem rather meager after this crisp, elegant if not-quite witty performance.

Harry Rolnick



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