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On the Aisle



Carnegie Hall: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

By Philip Anson / February 6, 2002
On the Aisle

ChaillyRegular visitors to Carnegie Hall can hear dozens of international orchestras on tour but only a handful can be called truly great. Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is one of them, a magnificent ensemble with a storied history that manages to live up to its reputation. The band tours frequently and Carnegie Hall recently enjoyed two of the 34 concerts they will perform outside the Netherlands this year.

On February 5, Chief Conductor Riccardo Chailly (photo left) led a nicely balanced program that opened with Three Preludes (1994) by the late Dutch composer Tristan Keuris (1946-1996). This tonal, user-friendly piece was notable for its superb instrumentation. The melancholy exoticism of the middle Prelude recalled Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The Molto vivace finale was angsty and percussive, yet always interesting. If only more contemporary composers were this considerate of the audience.

The evening’s star turn was 22-year old American violinist Hilary Hahn in Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 77. I have always admired Hahn ‘s recordings and performances but perhaps she is not an ideal Shostakovich interpreter. She has an ineffably sweet tone and delicate delivery that suits much Baroque and Romantic repertoire (Mendelssohn, Brahms, Chausson, etc.), hence she was most convincing in Shostakovich’s lyrical Passacaglia. But one wished for more ferocity and sheer volume of sound in the Scherzo and Burlesca. The orchestra seemed to hold back in deference to Hahn. During the intermission several critics said they preferred Vengerov or Repin for this work. Hahn played a pretty solo Bach encore recalling her fine 1997 Sony recording of the sonatas and partitas.

As if to compensate for the timid Shostakovich, the orchestra commenced Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite Op. 64 deafeningly and continued robust right to Juliet’s last gasp. The performance was technically cohesive but it lacked the drama of good ballet music. One missed the dancers. The Feb. 6 concert was devoted to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the so-called Resurrection symphony, which the Concertgebouw has just recorded for Decca. Chailly plunged right into the emotional core of the work, shifting seamlessly between moods of grief and beatitude.

Balance between solo instruments (such as oboe) and orchestra was perfect. Volume verged on aggressive, even punitive, yet never turned painful or curdled. Only the best orchestra-conductor combos can produce this sonic catharsis, in part thanks to luminous strings and winds. The Concertgebouw gave further proof of its pedigree by producing a thick “pâte” of sound that can be compared to a smooth varnish that blends and heightens the actual tones and melodies. For example, pizzicato strings sounded not like a bunch of plinked gut and wood instruments but like one huge liquid bubble of sound, bursting in slow motion. In the finale, the triumphant anthem dissolved into an anarchic apocalypse with offstage trumpets that really sounded distant and pastoral. Alto Petra Lang was rather small-voiced and uneasy in the Urlicht section. Soprano Janice Watson was high and clear.

The local Westminster Symphonic Choir was not perfect but in this case their frailty suited the work’s warts-and-all humanity. There was one encore, Puccini's Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums).

The concert was dedicated to the victims of Sept. 11, and the very fine music honored their memory.

Chailly, 49, has been chief conductor of the Concertgebouw for 16 years. Since 1999 he has also been music director of the Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra of Milan. In 2005 he leaves the Concertgebouw to head the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra and opera. It will be interesting to see how he improves that modest German band which has remained so-so under Herbert Blomstedt, and how the Dutch group fares without him.

> Carnegie Hall

> Concertgebouw


(c) La Scena Musicale 2001 and Philip Anson