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The Bird in Flames

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
01/31/2010 -  
Pierre Boulez: Livre pour cordes
Béla Bartók: Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tamara Stefanovich (pianos), Cynthia Yeh, Vadim Karpinos (Percussion)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez (Conductor Emeritus)

Having heard Pierre Boulez conduct the complete original 1910 Firebird last night, I have to state, like a repentant diabetic, “No More Suites!”

The Firebird Suite has soothing, charming movements, like the “Lullaby” and of course that sweeping finale. The entire ballet, in its original massive 1910 orchestration (which Stravinsky later called “wastefully large”) has orchestral effects that nobody has repeated since. Like James Cameron in films, Stravinsky had to invent his own tools. So much neo-primitive innovation, so much secret scoring to be explored, that part of this complete Firebird eerily could have been written for Sacre.

Pierre Boulez has made several recordings of the ballet over his 85 years, but listening to the CSO play live, with the optimal acoustical confines of Carnegie Hall became a “first time” experience. The very first notes were vibrating so subtly that as they opened up, one could physically feel the tension. With few exceptions, conductors take the “Infernal Dance” at breakneck pace. Mr. Boulez didn’t lessen the speed, but so intense, so icy-cool was the performance that those sudden great chords came with whiplash, almost frightening suddenness.

The orchestral response to Maestro Boulez was equally palpable. Those Chicago strings quivered and shook. The wonderful flutist Mathieu Dufour, who had triumphed in the Dalbavie Concerto the night before, was as telling as his fellow wind and brass players. What other details do we need? The performance was Boulez at his most meticulous, making an old warhorse a fleet stallion.

Boulez started with his own piece, Livre pour cordes, rewritten from his early Book for Quartet. Obviously his was the definitive performance, but not terribly attuned to such complex serial music, I could only marvel at how he brought transparnce (of a sort) to such complex writing.

The middle work was Béla Bartók’s Concerto For Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra. My own score, for the original work without orchestra is such a tingling razor-sharp success that one wonders why he muted it down with a large ensemble, hardly changing the soloists’ roles. When he moved to America, his publisher thought he could gain a bigger audience with a more conforming group, so he got to work. Thus, the expanded production of a perfectly fine chamber group.

The piano soloists were fine, but we had to truly follow the percussion for a new vantage point. On one side, the CSO’s Vadim Karpinos played his six timpani like Horowitz played the piano. On the other side, CSO First Chair Percussion Cynthia Yeh dashed between a platoon of tam-tams, triangles, bass drums, cymbals and xylophones.

Whew! Yet no biographies of either artist in the program?? Shame!! Next time Mr. Boulez comes to town with the CSO, this one mistake will certainly be rectified.

Harry Rolnick



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