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Paris When It Sizzles

New York
Carnegie Hall
01/29/2002 -  01/30/02
Henri Dutilleux: Mystere de l'instant
Bela Bartok: Piano Concerto # 2
Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique
Olivier Messiaen: Les Offrandes oubliees
Marc-Andre Dalbavie: Color (World Premiere)
Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto; Daphnis et Chloe, Suite # 2; La Valse

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Orchestre de Paris
Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)

“The gallop (one could in no way classify this breakneck tempo as a march) to the Scaffold presented…only blurred strokes of arhythmic quality.”

Frederick L. Kirshnit, “On The Road”, January 1999


When I was on the radio, I spent a good deal of my time reviewing individual performances of works with an ear towards airplay. Sometimes I solicited the opinions of my listeners or chatroom members in those earliest of internet days. One work that always elicited great controversy was the Symphonie fantastique, and I began to realize that an ideal performance of this important tone poetry simply does not exist. The reason for this seems to be that the work has as many disparate styles as movements and no one maestro has the proper handle on all five. The now ancient Boulez recording, for example, has the most sensual and flowing ball scene but the remainder of the performance is a bit stodgy. A conductor cerebral enough to expose the deep structure of the first movement might not have the drive to propel a passionate March to the Scaffold; one with a flair for the unique pastoral sonorities of the third movement might not be tortured enough to reveal the Walpurgisnacht of the fifth. If forced to select only one version, it would have to be the Mitropoulos, a conductor especially close in his sexual religiosity to the essence of the composer’s own personality, or the Bruno Walter Paris Conservatoire dinosaur with its poorly recorded sound. Coincidentally, the last fantastique that I heard live was in Houston and the maestro that evening was on the podium this week at Carnegie Hall for two concerts with his Orchestre de Paris, which evolved from Walter’s ensemble of the 1930’s.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard is the best pianist alive today at the art of clearly enunciating a large number of notes in a remarkably short period of time (with keyboard legends Jeanne and Yvonne Loriod and Olivier Messiaen as live-in mentors, this is perhaps not surprising) and this ability served him very well in the Bartok. Assaulting the piano the way the composer used to do, Aimard’s level of accuracy seemed almost superhuman while his interpretive poetry flourished by its very combativeness. The orchestra provided a superb accompaniment, Eschenbach’s pianist’s ear inspiring him to hold his instrumental forces in check so that the second and parts of the third movement could emerge as a duet for piano and percussion with orchestral obbligato. Especially praiseworthy was the play of the brass section, who handled Bartok’s polyrhythmic passages with ease and achieved the difficult timbral balance of extremely high and low individual notes existing in close proximity to one another, a technique developed even further in modern times by Gyorgy Ligeti (especially in his Lontano), a personal favorite of tonight’s pianist.

The Berlioz was most appealing for its rough sound, painstakingly created by generating “period” color with modern instruments. The shrill battlefield flutes and piccolo, the loose snares on the drums, the butchest of bass tubas substituting for the extinct ophicleide, all reminiscent of the same composer’s , lent airs of authenticity and bloodthirstiness to the performance, the triumph of the Jacquerie. The playing was positively thrilling and the work exciting as a whole, even if individual movements (most especially the ball) had the wind knocked out of them. This was surely an idiosyncratic performance with somewhat fussy conducting, but what really gave this listener pause was that it was exactly the same reading that I had heard three years ago in Texas (see quote above), right down to the last detail (except that these French musicians are considerably more talented than those dedicated but provincial Americans). There was no personal growth in evidence; it was as if Maestro just dusted off an old record and played it on superior equipment. At least my thesis is secure: a great Witches’ Sabbath and a less than cohesive meadow scene can comfortably exist in the same performance. The concert ended in a very lively manner with that quintessentially French encore (composed by Berlioz) the Hungarian national anthem.


1937 was an especially sad year in music for it witnessed the death of two uniquely talented composers, each of whom died at an early age from disease of the brain. The story goes that George Gershwin approached Maurice Ravel about obtaining lessons in composition. After discovering the size of the American’s annual income however, Ravel is purported to have replied “maybe you could teach me”. In fact, Gershwin did educate the diminutive Basque by example, his Piano Concerto in F an undisputed source for Ravel’s own in G. Much has been made of the jazzy nature of this piece, but few combinations of soloist and conductor strike just the right chord of synchopated sophistication.

This second concert was even more satisfying than the first. The early Messiaen piece exhibited his otherworldly spirituality in the orchestral guise of organ music in the Franckian tradition. Here Eschenbach’s noble tempi allowed these heartfelt prayers to emerge in well thought out paragraphs of sublime substance. One does not rush one’s communications with the infinite. If such is possible, Mr. Aimard was even more brilliant in the Ravel than he had been in the Bartok. His invocation of the jazzy muse was accomplished with the slightest delicious use of rubato, a mere flick of a hip wrist. The orchestra also employed this understated method of cool, the big band effects the briefest flashes of white light, twinkles in a Mondrian skyscape. Aimard literally moved me to tears during that incredible solo intro to the Adagio, the last big step down leaving me with an actual lump in my throat. The final movement’s presto runs were child’s play for this master of the horizontal tone cluster.

Wouldn’t it be great if, just once, a piece of contemporary music took place during a sunny day? Instead, this latest world premiere was yet another “night and the city” mood. Mr. Dalbavie does create interesting spatial relationships between his notes and the work held my attention because of its original use of his particular box of crayons. There was plenty of light in the Daphnis, this performance bounteously bathed in sunshine and flawless orchestral effects. Here is real color at its best and Eschenbach made the most of his exceptional players, realizing this piece as the instrumental showcase par excellence (Ravel the orchestrator at his mercurial best). I question the wisdom of programming La Valse immediately afterwards, as it builds to a similar climax in the same manner as the ballet suite (one too many popovers at the same feast), but this was such a high energy performance (how can they get this three-quarter flow right but still be so lead-footed at that earlier ball?) that I quickly forgot my reservations and sat back to enjoy the electricity.

There was still sufficient adrenaline left in this group for a rollicking Roman Carnival as an encore. 2003 is the 200th birthday year for Berlioz and next season’s schedules are suitably filled with his spectacular music. 2003-04 will be Maestro Eschenbach’s first season in Philadelphia. If he can inject his special flair for this music into the bloodstream of his new orchestra, the results should be fantastic indeed.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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