Debussy, Messiaen and Mahler with Ax and the New York Philharmonic

Debussy, Messiaen, Mahler : Emanuel Ax (piano), Alan Gilbert (conductor), New York Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 28.4.2011 (BH)

Debussy : “Pagodes” from Estampes (1903)
: Couleurs de la cité céleste (1963)
: Symphony No. 5 (1911)

To mark Emanuel Ax’s 100th performance with the New York Philharmonic, he and Alan Gilbert dreamed up a nifty bit of programming for the first half of this concert at Avery Fisher Hall. With Mr. Ax and the musicians needed for Messiaen’s Couleurs de la cité céleste onstage, Gilbert explained that Ax was scheduled to play all three parts of Debussy’s Estampes – solo – but that they later thought “Pagodes” was so effective with the Messiaen that they decided to use that alone, and lead immediately into Couleurs with only a small pause between the two. It was an unusual, dramatically effective choice. Ax’s fluttering, liquid reading of the Debussy – his fingers as light as hummingbirds – foreshadowed the glittering aviary of colors in the Messiaen (scored for winds, brass and percussion). Both are somewhat static; each is marked by timbres combining lightness and transparency.

In contrast, the Mahler Fifth that followed sounded even more lavish and propulsive, with the massive ensemble summoning up yet another palette of hues. Gilbert seemed especially attentive to the contrapuntal interlocking in the second movement, while able to coax Viennese ardor from the strings. The earthy third-movement waltz seemed a chain of constant interruptions, paradoxically tempered with good taste, with some especially fine work from the horns. Those wanting a slightly swifter Adagietto were not disappointed, with eloquent contributions from the Philharmonic’s strings and harp.

For the final Rondo, Gilbert’s moderate tempi allowed every measure of Mahler’s vivid writing to have its moment in the sun. His careful pacing, block by block, only emphasized the movement’s towering peaks – each leading inexorably to the next. But Gilbert also calmly managed those moments of repose, before the final roller coaster ride to the end.

Just before intermission, Philharmonic Executive Director Zarin Mehta presented Mr. Ax with a certificate recognizing his achievement and making him an Honorary Member of the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York, while noting that 65 individuals have reached this lofty “Centennial Club.” Since 1900, the only other instrumental soloists to be so honored have been Rudolf Serkin, Isaac Stern and former principal clarinetist Stanley Drucker – distinguished company indeed.

Bruce Hodges

Stan Metzger recently reviewed a similar concert (shorter, without the Debussy and Messiaen) here.