Dutoit, Philadelphia…and Eight Soloists

United StatesUnited States Martin, Mendelssohn, Bartók: Soloists, James Ehnes (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (chief conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 14.2.2012 (BH)

Frank Martin: Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments (1949)
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 (1844)
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra (1943)

Perhaps because it requires so many soloists, Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments doesn’t show up nearly as often as it might on concert programs, here with the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra led by Charles Dutoit at Carnegie Hall. It didn’t hurt, either, that the septet – all principals with the ensemble – are some of the finest in the world: Jeffrey Khaner (flute), Richard Woodhams (oboe), Ricardo Morales (clarinet), Daniel Matsukawa (bassoon), Jennifer Montone (horn), David Bilger (trumpet) and Nitzan Haroz (trombone). And their virtuosity was placed in even higher relief by Martin’s scoring; the orchestra uses only strings and percussion. The jovial first movement seemed to take awhile to gel, but by the third movement (“allegro vivace”) the ensemble hit its stride in a strange march that keeps rebuilding itself.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto blossoms with a charismatic soloist like James Ehnes. The handsome violinist projects a comfortable, almost homespun aura, but there was nothing homespun about the serious fiddling afoot, particularly in his softer moments such as those in the first cadenza. Intricate double-stops that came later posed no challenges. Ehnes handled the sweet theme of the second movement with grace, helped by plush accompaniment from Dutoit and the musicians. In the final “Allegro vivace” Ehnes almost outdid the ensemble in spring-like festiveness, and there were moments when I simply wanted to admire his bowing technique – not a movement ever wasted. As an encore, he offered one of Paganini’s Caprices, a fluid take on No. 16.

I almost never tire of hearing Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, especially with a group like the Philadelphians and a colorist like Dutoit, whose recording with the Montréal orchestra is widely admired. In the first movement Dutoit was notable for his light hand – as if letting the ensemble find its wings on its own. (Not to worry: they found them, and quickly.) A high point came in a surge of low strings, the cellos and basses roiling in spasms. The second movement sang, with forceful pizzicatos and an unusual effect near the end that sounded like white noise (which must have been percussion, though I couldn’t quite see). The central movement was as powerful as a tiger lying in wait, anticipating the pounce. My pulse quickened again during the folk-tinged Intermezzo interrotto – the Philadelphia winds cheerfully leading the collision of timbres and meters. The smoking final movement showed the ensemble’s textures at their most luxurious – think jacquard, more than rust – with the final pages taken very, very fast.

Bruce Hodges