Beethoven Almost Trumps Sparkling New Murail

United StatesUnited States  Messiaen, Mozart, Murail, Beethoven: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), New York Philharmonic, David Robertson (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 13.4.2013 (BH)

Messiaen: Les Offrandes Oubliées: Méditation symphonique pour orchestra (The Forgotten Offerings: Symphonic Meditation for Orchestra) (1930)
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488 (ca. 1784-86)
Tristan Murail: Le désenchantement du monde (The Disenchantment of the World), Symphonic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2012, United States premiere)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1801-02)

Once again conductor David Robertson showed himself to be master of both programming and podium, in this quartet of the old and new with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall. And though the news of the night was Tristan Murail’s intriguing new piano concerto with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Beethoven almost stole the show.

For Murail’s Le désenchantement du monde , six of the orchestra’s wind instruments were tuned a quarter-tone lower than the others, though the composer says the piece does not rely on a strict spectral palette. But there are plenty of non-traditional intervals in what is likely the second microtonal piece the orchestra has ever performed, after Murail’s Gondwana in 2009.

Over sustained orchestral masses, a rising arpeggio appears, multiplies and then seems to disintegrate. Each entrance by the piano seems to ignite a new orchestral chord, the ensemble glittering with a profusion of elegantly chosen colors—some delivered serenely, others with violence. Midway, the double basses drop down to a pianissimo as the orchestra pulses, the piano sparkling through. As the parade continued, one could only marvel: Murail creates some of the most ravishing orchestral sonorities of anyone today. Plus, near the end, there are echoes of Messiaen (one of Murail’s teachers), whose Les Offrandes Oubliées opened the concert. And what additional praise can be heaped on Aimard, one of today’s most probingly intellectual, yet most sensual pianists? Each moment—every note—glistened like a polished stone, glimpsed on a riverbed through a limpid screen.

In the first half, Aimard also lent his formidable technique to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, backed by a warmly expressive orchestra and elegant interplay. Robertson found instinctively right tempos—not too fast—complemented by finely calibrated dynamics, for an exuberant performance with nothing taken for granted. Robertson also made the most out of the Messiaen, with a surprisingly loud, galloping middle movement framed by glowing, mystical outer ones. Listening to the luminous finale with its ocher strings, “…avec une grande pitié et un grand amour” (“…with great pity and great love”) felt as if the conductor had plunged the hall into twilight.

Beethoven’s Second Symphony might show up more often on programs if given Robertson’s effortlessly stylish, frolicsome treatment and placed in a different context, as it was here. The propulsive first movement caused spontaneous applause at the end, causing the conductor to whirl around and smile, “I like that one, too.” And in the final Scherzo and Allegro molto, his offhand podium gestures—glancing deadpan left, then right, reacting to Beethoven’s humorous back-and-forth between the instruments—produced titters in the audience. A bit of comic timing never hurts, and Robertson’s skill in illuminating Beethoven’s surprises was as entertaining as it gets.

Bruce Hodges