Alan Gilbert and NYPO in Istanbul: Mozart with Emanuel Ax, Mussorgsky with High Tension.

TurkeyTurkey Mozart, Mussorgky: New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Emmanuel Ax (piano), Istanbul 4.5.13 (AM)

Mozart: Symphony No. 36 in C Major, KV 425, “Linz”;
Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major. KV 503
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (Arr. Maurice Ravel)

Istanbul’s second date in as many days with the New York Philharmonic was packed with pretty standard repertoire. After Friday’s more venturesome affair, a full half with stock Mozart fare was a welcome, but the evening definitely stood out with Gilbert’s harsh, even at times barbaric take on Pictures at an Exhibition.

Following a smooth as silk Mozart Linz symphony, NYPO artist in residence Emanuel Ax took the stage and gave us a sweet and fluid reading of the C Major piano concerto. This pairing between Alan Gilbert’s NYPO and Mr. Ax which will continue to be featured in the orchestra’s 2013 tour, is like bread and butter. Mr. Gilbert did have to attune his orchestra to Mr. Ax’s slightly fast tempo in the first movement occasionally, but other than that the partnership worked perfectly. I was particularly awed by the cadenza the pianist chose (I wonder if it is Brendel’s). Emanuel Ax’s appearance was shorter than we would have liked but at least we snatched a Chopin mazurka (Op. 24 No. 2) out of him as an encore.

Seeing the NYPO take the stage in full force after their diminutive configuration for Mozart was exciting in itself: the whole brass team, a myriad of percussions (glockenspiel, chimes, tam-tam, rattle, whip, cymbal, snares, etc.), plus the strings almost doubling in size –not to mention not one but two harps pointed towards a vicious performance.

The opening promenade was stately, but not grandiose. Mr. Gilbert did not let the famous opening notes linger on, but cut them short to give the music a proper walking pace. It was easy to imagine a bearded Mussorgsky striding along the promenade with his hands clenched behind his back, making his way to the paintings with wonder and curiosity. NYPO’s cool strings sound combined with a high-chiming glockenspiel painted a frightening Gnomus image. The music in its original piano version is somewhat humorous, but Ravel’s image of the gnome is more chilling than anything else. After a slow but forward driven Old Castle which featured excellent work from the woodwinds (so much so that the conductor often held back the strings to make them more audible), and a third promenade that shifts the mood to a livelier, happier one, the flutes and the clarinets continued to take the center stage for a playful and dancing Tuileries.

Mussorgsky, in Bydolo, imagines an oxcart moving away from the listener in the shape of a decrescendo throughout the movement, but to make the music more effective orchestrally, Ravel instead pictures the oxcart moving closer and closer. As the vehicle approaches we hear more of its rods and bolts and the steps of the animal. The music than recedes back into pianissimo territory as the cart moves past us back into the distance. At Mr. Gilbert’s hurried pace, the ox would have probably be exhausted: the conductor was obviously anxious to get to the more exhilarating movements. Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, one of the only three pictures that were actually on display at the Hartmann exhibition (the other two are Baba Yoga’s Hut and The Great Gate of Kiev), was quirky and demonstrated a textbook example of interplay between orchestra sections: as the music moved from one group to the next, the continuity was not disrupted for even an instant.

The Jewish themes of Samuel Goldenberg and Schymule were played dramatically with flashy strings representing the rich Goldenberg and a thin brass picturing the poorer Schymule. When the two get into dialogue, Samuel’s vociferous voice overwhelms poor Schymule. Alan Gilbert made minute to minute adjustments between the two sections to reflect this disparity. The conductor, then, drove the orchestra towards a fast and relentless The Limoges Market Place, and immediately transfiguring them into an elegiac and melancholic mood for the Catacombs.

The chilling and terrifying air of the Gnomus movement returned for the Baba Yaga’s Hut, but this time in an even louder and faster version. The ferocity of the orchestra hits were of such high caliber that they even managed to shake the acoustically insufficient hall. The high energy was carried over to the Bogatyr Gates with a magnificent and triumphant finale.

With the NYPO’s Turkey tour coming to a close, Mr. Gilbert announced ‘one more piece we would like to play for you’, which turned out to be the Intermezzo of the prelude to Act III of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. The Italian master’s lush and romantic tunes were the perfect antidote to the hair-raising and draining Mussorgsky. Just as we thought the evening was over, the NYPO brass quintet, one of the champions of the evening, unhappy with their exclusion from the encore, played a spontaneous “That’s a Plenty” to our and Mr. Gilbert’s total surprise. I wish the music never ended, but it had to some time. I hope NYPO’s next appointment with Istanbul arrives much sooner than twenty years.

Alain Matalon