Sunday, January 04, 2009

Szymanowski & Shortcomings

I was in NYC on Saturday so I stuck around through the evening to hear the Philharmonic, with Maazel on the podium and Emanuel Ax playing piano. The big draw for me was a rare-ish performance of Karol Szymanowski's Symphonie Concertante (aka Symphony no. 4) for piano and orchestra, so its decidedly lackluster performance was a disappointment. It's not all that strange to hear a major orchestra phone in the accompaniment to a concerto, but the Szymanowski has a harder-than-average orchestra part and a piano line that's not wildly entertaining by itself, so if the thing doesn't gel you're not left with a lot. It's a shame, since I've liked the piece on CD for a while. What came off best was the quiet opening thumps of the piece (bass drum and pizzicato bass), sounding unobtrusive and inscrutable, like the composer is tapping his fingers on a table and stalling for time before coming up with the first theme. The slow movement, come to think of it, had a decent atmosphere to it.

Ax also played Richard Strauss's early single-movement "Burleske," which doesn't show Strauss in fully mature competence yet but does have some fine moments, particularly a dreamy- or distracted-sounding waltz section towards the end, with the piano pirouetting in its own zone while the strings hang some moderately tuneful stuff around it, following a rhythmic pattern glancingly similar to Bernstein's "Somewhere." I think it was a waltz, anyway, but I wasn't counting beats. Some theorist I turned out to be. Bach's second Brandenburg, beforehand, was nice and smooth-textured.

I left, after some deliberation, at intermission, tired and looking forward more to getting on the train than to hearing Maazel conduct "Pictures at an Exhibition," which I figured could be good or bad but less memorable anyway than Salonen laying it down two Februaries ago.

In my continuing quest to more particularly understand the acoustics at Avery Fisher Hall, I can report with confidence that you should not sit on the edge of the orchestra level underneath the first balcony, where the sound is bland and waxy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somewhere between row V or W and DD or EE, or even GG, but centered. There it sounds clear, with no atmosphere, odd blend problems, muffled mid-range, but not so muffled as in the high treble, yet still with no interesting definition in the bass. All that - best seats in the house!


1/05/2009 1:51 AM  
Blogger Pete said...

This review really encapsulates well my final stance on Maazel's tenure with the Philharmonic; a sort of awkward "Well it wasn't always bad, actually quite good sometimes, but I left halfway through."

1/05/2009 12:03 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

Allan Kozinn calls it an uneven Pictures in the NY Times, although he also found the Szymanowski a lot more appealing.

The Maazel performances I've seen have ranged widely in quality; the last time I saw him conduct was last fall, in a program including his own Flute Concerto (which was a pleasant, appealing surprise) and a gripping, unsentimental Mahler 10 Adagio that made me think I should have gone to more of his Mahler performances. But I've heard his indifferent side too, and there have been plenty of accounts of that by the critics too.

Getting back to the Avery Fisher acoustics, I'll note that I've had an OK time in seats in the top tier of the hall (where tickets are also cheaper, and where you can watch the winds and percussion) and in the back of the orchestra level.

1/05/2009 7:55 PM  

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