Busoni Behemoth Brings Out Hamelin’s Best

United StatesUnited States  Spring for Music, Concert III: Hila Plitmann (soprano), Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Men of the Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller (WSC director), New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Jacques Lacombe (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 9.5.2012 (BH)

Varèse: Nocturnal (1961)
: Symphony No. 1, “Berliner Symphonie” (1921, Carnegie Hall premiere)
: Piano Concerto in C, Op. 39 (1904)

For the third concert in Carnegie Hall’s Spring for Music series—this time with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra—conductor Jacques Lacombe exercised some supremely savvy programming. The mammoth Busoni Piano Concerto was already in place, so Lacombe found rarely performed works by two of Busoni’s students—and the fact that one of the pieces uses a men’s chorus (as the Busoni does in its final movement) was a sweet bonus, especially given the rich, focused timbre of the men of the Westminster Symphonic Choir. Nocturnal by Edgard Varèse begins with the chorus chanting syllables with the solemnity of an ancient ritual, as the soprano (the fresh-voiced Hila Plitmann) offers mysterious words on sleep, crucifixion and shadows. (Texts are from Anaïs Nin’s House of Incest.) With the New Jersey percussionists on overdrive, all adroitly coordinated by Lacombe, the piece made a startling beginning to the evening.

It’s hard to believe that Kurt Weill’s first symphony had never been performed at Carnegie Hall, especially since it was written over 90 years ago. (Are there no Weill activists/devotees to monitor such omissions?) Its flavor combines Mahler with a little Hindemith, perhaps as if each of those were to write film scores. Lacombe and the ensemble gave it a sharp reading, emphasizing its youthfulness. But if the piece didn’t make as lasting an impression as one might have liked, I suspect that was because all hearts and minds were cloudy with anticipation for the second half of the program.

There’s little doubt that the evening’s main course was saved until the end: virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin as soloist in Busoni’s megalopolis of a Piano Concerto. Its five movements span more than an hour, and in true luxury casting, Busoni asks for a men’s chorus, which waits patiently until the final ten minutes or so to enter. Meanwhile, the demands on the soloist are formidable. As the large orchestra lumbers about, the pianist tackles a note-heavy menu that for some can seem relentless.

The prologue, a sweeping orchestral fantasy with Straussian heft, has both soloist and orchestra in restless currents, rarely pausing. The “Pezzo giocoso” is faster, with the pianist accented with glints of piano, cymbals, timpani, tambourine, and always in motion—followed by the substantial “Pezzo serioso,” with soloist and ensemble clashing in different keys. The fourth movement, a thundering tarantella of hair-raising difficulty, could almost be a mini-concerto on its own. Here I had to put down my pen, stop writing and stare, as Hamelin’s frame rocked back and forth, his eyes constantly re-checking his position, with fingers splayed, grappling with the ocean of chords that seemed to dwarf the keyboard.

In the finale, the choir’s massive, stoic contribution (the text is from Aladdin by Adam Oehlenschläger) combined with Hamelin and the orchestra pounding at full blast, in a glorious conclusion that seemed to come into view like one of those large asteroids that threaten to pass too close to the earth. And a nice coda: at the end, after the final burst of energy, Lacombe was able to maintain several seconds of silence in the audience—a marvelous moment—before the hail of applause and shouting began. Amazingly, Hamelin obliged with an encore, Busoni’s delicate Elegy No. 4, with its melody derived from “Greensleeves.”

Bruce Hodges