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An Unassuming Debut

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
04/30/2008 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major
Antonín Dvorák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, opus 95 (“From the New World”)

David Fray (Piano)
Orchestre National de France, Kurt Masur (Conductor)

David Fray has been acclaimed in Europe for several years now, but he is hardly well-known here. The French-born 25-year-old has been performing throughout the Continent both as soloist and with the major orchestras. His recording of music by Pierre Boulez and J.S. Bach was named “best record of the year” by Le Soir of Belgium and The Times of London. Mr. Fray has won several esteemed prizes in Japan, Europe and Canada, and is n demand everywhere.

Yet his debut concert in New York took place only last night, not with an American orchestra and certainly not with the most demanding concerto. One wonders, in fact, who selects the work in which he will show his face (and fingers) to the public, for the Beethoven Second Piano Concerto, while amiable enough, is not enough to draw the usual huzzahs.

The concerto itself was composed at about the same age as Mr. Fray himself. An amiable work in the Mozart tradition (Beethoven wrote it 1795, earlier than the so-called “first” concerto), the first movement is light, laid out plainly, and has a cadenza which is actually rather fierce when played by the correct player. The second movement is quite magical in its own way, and the final rondo is meant to show off the renowned 18th Century pianist—in this case probably Herr Beethoven himself.

Mr. Fray was fortunate in being accompanied not by the New York Philharmonic, but the younger French National Orchestra, with the baton of the ageless Kurt Masur. Their string playing was not as electrical as certain American orchestras, but if an orchestra has a personality, this would have been the comfortable Classical sound for a comfortable work.

The opening movement was not underplayed, as is so common, but from the first notes showed a pianist ready to exhibit his skills without any particular modesty. Each note was clear, the phrasing limpid, and Mr. Masur made certain a careful balance was between soloist and ensemble.

The cadenza, though, changed the entire mood of placidity. Beginning as a fughetta, it developed, under Mr. Fray’s hands, carefully and almost tortuously until he was storming the keyboard, the young lion raging to escape from his Classical cage. Yes, this cadenza was written about a decade after the first performance, but most pianists try to control its power. Mr. Fray was not afraid to take it on at full blast.

The Adagio is physically not a challenge, but Mr. Fray was so emphatic in his playing that those single notes slowly parading down the tonic and then dominant chords were each deftly punctuated. The rondo is usually taken at a decorous allegro, but Beethoven calls for “very” fast, and this is the way Mr. Fray played it: fast but not furious, the tunes happily chattering away but without urgency.

And while Mr. Fray did essay a relatively forceful Beethoven, the work itself does not have the bravura (or demagogic) force to have an audience leap to its feet. Even in sophisticated New York, loudness and clashes and whizzing climaxes with drums and cymbals (in the tonic key, of course) calls for greater applause than the elegant little concerto to which Mr. Fray was so attuned.

Harry Rolnick



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