Rach ‘n’ Loll
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
04/23/2008 - and April 24, 26, 29
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Overture to The Marriage of Figaro
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto Number 1
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances
Maurice Ravel: La Valse
André Watts (piano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (Conductor)
New York’s Week of Understated Joy started with a feisty performance of La Fille du Régiment, will end with Abduction from the Seraglio, and in between is balmy weather, the Tribeca Film Festival, dowdy pigeons soaring like seagulls.
Smack in the middle, Martha Argerich and her ex-husband Charles Dutoit would have performed an unpredictable Beethoven, making for a week of elation and excitement. Alas, Ms. Argerich is predictable in one way: nobody can predict when she will show up to play. The wait—like directors waiting for Marilyn Monroe to show up—is worthwhile. But in this case, she cancelled completely. The audience, many of whom were invited benefactors of the New York Philharmonic, did not seem too upset, since André Watts was the substitute. And he never fails to be dependable for a workmanlike performance.
Beethoven is not highest in the Watts repertory, though. He can play the most elegant Haydn and Scarlatti, and can run through Liszt like it was mother’s milk. Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, though (actually the composer’s second), never rose to the occasion. This was mainly a sapless playing, understated to the point of diffidence. The first two movements were saved by Beethoven’s own cadenzas, played quite gracefully. But the athletic opening and the lucid second movement were missing.
For the finale, Mr. Watts suddenly attacked the piano, playing at such breakneck speed that conductor Dutoit had to run the orchestra to the end, rather than conduct them. Such velocity is fine in lesser works. But that allegro rondo has the most vivacious Beethoven tunes, including a near-tango. Mr. Watts’ proficiency was something to admire, but the vivacity became vacuous, and Beethoven’s lovely inventions were hidden in the fireworks.
Mr. Dutoit actually had two different concerts. classic/controlled for the first half (beginning with Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro) and post-Romantic/lush, ending with La Valse. The Ravel had concluded the very first concert I ever heard, with Mitropoulos on the podium, and I still recall the rafters of Carnegie Hall literally shaking. Mr. Dutoit was brilliant, but Avery Fisher audio is rather more decorous.
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, the very last work of the great Russian, should be pure confection. Yes, he stuck in the Dies Irae at the end (as in so many pieces) and he had some real Russian liturgical stuff. But mainly these are three flashy, surprising, prodigious works, caviar for a French-Swiss conductor like Mr. Dutoit. It was played with the right brio, enough rubato, and a second-movement waltz which could have rivaled Ravel’s. It was not magnetic playing; it didn’t have the lift or jolt. But perhaps the placid Manhattan mood precluded an excess of sparkle.