Argerich and the Philadelphia (review)

The management of the Philadelphia Orchestra is attempting to soften the sting of its unfortunate decision to hire Christoph Eschenbach, who is soon departing, by postponing any announcement of his replacement for several years. In his stead, good soldier Charles Dutoit will take over as chief conductor — not music director — through the 2011–12 season. On Thursday evening, the new Dutoit era opened in New York with an appearance at Carnegie Hall.

Maestro Dutoit has a long history with the ensemble, serving as a ubiquitous guest conductor and leader for many years of the summer season at Saratoga. His performances tend to be solid if not afflated. One corollary benefit of hiring Dutoit is his good relationship with pianist and cult figure Martha Argerich — they were married at one time — who is a notorious canceller of performances, but tends to show up with this particular conductor on the podium.

This evening, Ms. Argerich treated Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 as an early work, still in the Classical thrall of Mozart. Her performance was notable for its precision and delicacy, a jewellike polish and a firm, accurate touch. What was missing was the visceral excitement of the work, especially its rhythmic drive, so compelling in the opening of the Rondo.

But despite all of her trials and tribulations, her rabid fans, and her unique combination of mystique, sex appeal, rebelliousness and fragility, Ms. Argerich has always held a consistent trump card: She can really play the piano. And Mr. Dutoit matched her stroke for tasteful stroke.

The program opened with a bracing account of Finlandia and ended with a radiant Sheherazade. Rimsky-Korsakov is having a revival here in the West due to the efforts of Anna Netrebko and Valery Gergiev but this particular piece is evergreen. Mr. Dutoit wasted no time at all in repositioning the fabulous Philadelphian strings, moving the cellos to his immediate right and putting the second violins back next to their brethren. The resulting sound, enhanced significantly by contented players who no longer have to fight with their leader, was ravishing.

Especially thrilling were the wind quintet section of the Tale of the Kalander Prince and the original statement of that gorgeous theme known as The Young Prince and the Young Princess. Listening to Maestro Dutoit lead this beautiful music in a disciplined manner that allowed its lushness to develop organically, it was difficult not to speculate about how Mr. Eschenbach might have polluted the passage’s natural beauty with his own brand of faux emotionalism. For now, we were all treated to exceptional string playing and wise leadership.

Concertmaster David Kim was effective as the soloist — the fiddle represents the storytelling maiden throughout — but could have been a bit more romantic. Still, it was a pleasure to note that the Philadelphia Orchestra is back on the right track.

BY FRED KIRSHNIT New York Sun
March 5, 2007

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