Salonen’s Hungarian Echoes (3) in New York

“Hungarian Echoes 3,” Haydn, Bartók, Ligeti : Olli Mustonen (piano), Women of the New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt (director), Esa-Pekka Salonen (guest conductor), New York Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall, New York, 26.3.2011 (BH)

Haydn : Symphony No. 8 in G major, Le Soir (The Evening), Hob. I:8 (1761)

Bartók : Piano Concerto No. 1, BB 91 (1926)

Ligeti : Clocks and Clouds (1972/1973)

Bartók : Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Pantomime in One Act, Op. 19, BB 82 (1917-19)

For the big finale to the New York Philharmonic’s Hungarian Echoes, Esa-Pekka Salonen placed a Ligeti rarity alongside better-known works by Haydn and Bartók. Clocks and Clouds, written a few years after Ligeti’s breakout hits, Atmosphères and Lontano, shares some of their characteristics, but also displays a brief flirtation with minimalism. The unusual instrumentation includes no violins, and a woodwind-heavy contingent of five flutes, three oboes, five clarinets and four bassoons—and sitting where the first violins would normally be, a small choir of twelve women. Reflecting the influence of an essay by Karl Popper (1902-1994), the noted Viennese philosopher, the music vacillates between ethereal, swirling figures (“clouds,” e.g., in the woodwinds) and more defined ones (“clocks”). Salonen and the musicians gave it all the magic it required.

Completing the festival’s Haydn trilogy was Symphony No. 8, Le Soir (The Evening), in a gracious performance that might have been the best of the three (Nos. 6 and 7 appeared on previous concerts). Salonen seemed relaxed, even dropping his hands now and then to let some of the orchestra’s fine soloists have a field day—e.g., Carter Brey on cello, and concertmaster Glenn Dicterow.

The two Bartók scores pretty much set the room ablaze. Olli Mustonen plunged into the First Piano Concerto with conviction, fingers pelting the keys, with the orchestra barreling along in hot pursuit. Impressive as he was, now and then I felt that his body language was getting in the way of his expressivity, rather than serving it. From the audience reaction, however, I was clearly in the minority, with many standing to cheer at the explosive conclusion.

But there was no doubt about the Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, given a scorchingly effective reading. From the opening braying brass to clarinetist Mark Nuccio’s luminous solos, the ensemble seemed to relish Salonen’s taut control. Tempi were elastic: fast sequences were driven almost over the edge (but not quite), and slow ones relaxed into a dreamlike idleness. The final scene had the thrill of a runaway train—but unlike being captive on an actual, out-of-control railroad car, I was glad to be on this one.

Bruce Hodges