On the Brink, the Philadelphia Orchestra Comes Roaring Back

United StatesUnited States Fauré, Beethoven, Shostakovich: Lang Lang (piano), The Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 24.10.2011 (BH)

Fauré: Pavane in F-sharp Minor, Op. 59 (1887)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19 (c. 1788-1790; rev. 1794-1795, 1798)
Encore: Liszt: Étude No. 3 in G-sharp Minor, “La Campanella” from Grandes études de Paganini (1838; rev. 1851)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93 (1953)

After the depressing news in recent months of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s financial difficulties, this fascinating evening at Carnegie Hall was a welcome, even urgent reminder of just how good this ensemble is. To see it come roaring back – under the baton of chief conductor Charles Dutoit – with a program demonstrating the strengths of all concerned was heartwarming, and many in the audience must have been breathing a sigh of relief.

Dutoit is renowned for his Fauré, and the Pavane showed the orchestra’s widely admired strings to full advantage. Principal flute Jeffrey Khaner coaxed liquid tone, emerging mysteriously, as if from some subterranean cave, and in general Faure’s delicate colors were sensitively balanced, helped by Dutoit’s masterful control of line.

When Lang Lang strode onstage, he also paused to add his applause for Khaner before taking his seat for the Beethoven Second Piano Concerto. This may have been the quietest performance of this piece I’ve ever heard – with the exception of the first movement cadenza, which with its sharp contrasts and violent outbursts almost seemed like a micro-concerto on its own. But as good as the playing was – and often it was very good – extra-musical items intervened: during the second movement Adagio, I was becoming slightly uneasy at the pianist’s tendency to glance balefully out into the audience, often with his temporarily unused left hand cocked at an odd angle, as if stopping an oncoming car. Dutoit wisely kept the orchestra just above mezzo-forte, enabling Lang Lang to enter at almost supernaturally soft dynamic levels without being drowned out. But the overall effect made one wonder if the pianist were trying to offer a rejoinder for those who feel that “loud” is his calling card. At the end, applause turned into a roar after the pianist offered an encore, Liszt’s classic Third Étude, “La Campanella” from Grandes études de Paganini, dispatched with eye-opening virtuosity.

I confess that Dutoit’s compatibility with Shostakovich’s vast Tenth Symphony was a big question mark – until the orchestra’s low strings launched the first movement, and it quickly became clear that something special was afoot. As in the Fauré, Dutoit’s attention to line was superbly controlled, maintaining the tension. The movement’s massive climax was all acid and flint, burrowing into one’s skull, before the texture receded into moments unutterably sad. The Allegro was as brutal as I’ve ever heard, but not the fastest, with the musicians maintaining scorching ensemble precision. In the third movement, the sinister waltz maintained elegance, with fabulous contributions from the percussion and horns, until the chill of the opening returned, the flute having the final word with the famous “DSCH” motif lingering in the air. The final Andante-Allegro had pleasures too numerous to count, from more sensitively conceived solos to stop-on-a-dime tumult in the reprise of earlier savagery, capped by the massive reappearance of the composer’s motto. The Tenth puts musicians through their paces, and one could only listen and observe in awe.

Thank the universe – or whatever Supreme Being one worships – that this magnificent orchestra has (we hope) solved its problems for now. The idea that this ensemble – a touchstone of American cultural life for over a century – could not exist is beyond comprehension.

Bruce Hodges