Thursday night’s concert with the London Philharmonic Orchestra paired well-loved Beethoven with lesser-known Tchaikovsky, for an interesting contrast of two great Romantics. For the second program of this season’s visit to Carnegie Hall, Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic opened with Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, the last of his five concertos for piano. This is the one that listeners know even if they think they’ve never heard it before. Catchy tunes, imposing moments, piano curlicues to spare.
In Vladimir Jurowski’s hands, the orchestra was energetic and refined, with every phrase meticulously shaped and a well-blended sound overall. Emanuel Ax’s tone balanced brilliance with softness, and his phrasing was appropriately assertive or fleet. He and Jurowski kept tempos lively, yielding a performance so refined that it lacked spontaneity. Still, no one expects an experimental interpretation from a venerable artist and a well-known piece. Ax delivered beautifully, the orchestra played energetically, and the ear, knowing how the story ends, went on auto-pilot and enjoyed it all.
Called to the stage several times, Ax played Schubert’s Impromptu in A flat, Op. 142 no. 2. He took an unusually quick tempo, but it made the piece dance, and Ax poured drama into the middle section.
It is something of an occasion to hear Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, the composer’s attempt at integrating a literary program into the symphonic form. The work enjoys much less stage time than the composer’s six other, numbered symphonies, largely due to its sprawling last movement, whose flaws threaten to overshadow the lovely moments earlier in the work. It’s a pity, as the first three movements represent some of Tchaikovsky’s best symphonic writing.
The symphony is based on Lord Byron’s verse play Manfred, which was wildly popular among audiences and artists in the Romantic era. In the first movement, the title character wanders the Alps to mourn some sin associated with his beloved Astarte. (This element of the story may have been inspired by Byron’s alleged affair with his half-sister.) In the second, an Alpine fairy appears before Manfred in a rainbow rising from a waterfall. The third is a pastorale whose middle section hints at Manfred’s despair. Action begins in the fourth movement, when Manfred confronts an “infernal orgy” at the cave of the evil spirit Arimanes, where he has gone to seek Astarte and gain her forgiveness.
Jurowski and the London Philharmonic made a highly praised live recording of the Manfred Symphony in 2004, and Thursday night’s interpretation had all the virtues of the earlier performance. The orchestra abandoned the restraint they showed in the Beethoven and dug into the Manfred with rich sonorities, fervent vibrato, and classy portamenti. The bassoons and bass clarinet announced Manfred’s theme with an arresting sonority in the very first entrance, setting the tone for the rest of the performance. The second movement, evoking the waterfall, featured Tchaikovsky’s trademark technique of introducing a great melody, then repeating it with ornaments and filigree using all the orchestra’s colors. Jurowski took a very fast tempo that never seemed out of control, lending a sense of swing to the central tune. The final measures, with harp and the first violins turned into a giant pizzicato harp beneath the soaring solo of leader Peter Schoeman, were perfection itself.
The third movement featured fearless, fifey work from the flute section (one of whom appeared to be playing a wooden flute), a gorgeous oboe solo from Ian Hardwick, and beautiful sounds from the horns.
The problematic last movement, that “infernal orgy,” would suggest a wild and sensual finish. Yet the tight forms and delightful melodies of the other movements are abandoned for repetitive, modular ideas that stop and start without connecting to each other. And the repetition never seems like it’s going to end. Jurowski alleviated these problems by taking a very fast pace, not lingering over the weak moments. He did create wonderfully mysterious moods in the quiet sections and the final transfiguration that is over far too soon.
As an encore, we were treated to a swift yet lovely rendition of the gorgeous pas de deux from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker.