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Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Christoph Eschenbach turns “Rachmaninoff on acid” into a very good trip; Satiesfaction!; Bartoli does Salieri.

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Ah, showmanship. Classical music desperately needs a bit of it nowadays, and Christoph Eschenbach obliged at his first Carnegie Hall concert as the new music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Even before the orchestra took the stage, an authentic gamelan staffed with musicians in full native regalia and playing Balinese instruments arrived to perform two classical Balinese compositions in contrasting styles. This, Eschenbach told us, would be the ideal preparation for the main event of the evening, a work heavily influenced by gamelan music: Olivier Messiaen’s massive Turangalîla Symphony, for some a rainbow of dazzling sonorities that proclaim earthly and spiritual love as equally intoxicating, for others an embarrassingly banal exercise in exotica that comes “straight from the Hollywood cornfields” (Virgil Thomson) and sounds like “Rachmaninoff on acid” (yours truly).

Turangalîla has divided opinion ever since Leonard Bernstein presided over the world premiere in 1949. Perhaps this heady celebration of l’amour was too much even for that indefatigable leader of musical love-ins, since as far as I know he never conducted it again. Nor has Messiaen’s star pupil, Pierre Boulez, favored the piece, preferring the master’s more austere later works—and even at that, one suspects, with reservations. Despite its detractors, Turangalîla is still the composer’s most performed work, a showpiece that never fails to rouse an audience. The symphony’s ten movements—actually more of a suite than a true symphonic construction—explore a huge variety of moods, textures, and technical procedures, and even those who find the experience slightly repulsive are unlikely to be bored.

I would never have associated Eschenbach with this music—but then, he has come a long way since I first encountered him as a stern-looking piano prodigy who many years ago recorded the complete Mozart sonatas for Deutsche Grammophon. In any case, I can’t imagine the piece being performed with more enthusiasm, panache, or canny understanding of how to oil the complex mechanisms that make the whole thing twist and turn so seductively. After just a few brief weeks with its new maestro, the Philadelphia already sounds like quite a different orchestra than it did under its two previous music directors, Riccardo Muti and Wolfgang Sawallisch. In fact, if anything, this concert summoned up the glory days of Leopold Stokowski, when every night with the Philadelphia Orchestra was, love it or loathe it, a sonic adventure. With Stokey surely bestowing a blessing from above, Eschenbach is off to a brave start.


If this performance of Turangalîla had an extra glitter about it, Jean-Yves Thibaudet can take much of the credit. The solo piano is prominent enough to consider the piece a gigantic concerto—Messiaen himself admitted as much—and Thibaudet provided all the necessary brilliant colors and virtuosity without ever threatening to steal more attention than he should. It’s good to see a pianist of this stature taking part in a project that isn’t likely to bring him tremendous personal glory, but then Thibaudet has always shown a healthy musical curiosity.

“Eschenbach summoned up the glory days of Leopold Stokowski, when every night with the Philadelphia Orchestra was, love it or loathe it, a sonic adventure.”

He is also one of the lucky few to be still regularly recorded by a major label, and his latest release is typically exploratory: the complete solo piano music of Erik Satie on five well-filled Decca discs. Anyone who loves the composer’s quirky vignettes and pungent sound world should investigate these recordings, even if the classic versions by Aldo Ciccolini are already at hand. Thibaudet includes many scores that have come to light and been authenticated since Ciccolini’s two pioneering EMI sets were made, and his interpretations of the Gnossiennes, Gymnopédies, Pièces Froides, Ogives, and dozens more are even more polished and characterful. Even when Satie writes one of his typically impossible instructions to the pianist—to play “without pride” or “like a nightingale with toothache”—Thibaudet seems to know exactly how to translate that into music. For Satie freaks, here is nearly seven hours of sheer heaven.


Another musician favored by Decca is Cecilia Bartoli, generally reckoned in a post-Pavarotti world to be one of the few opera singers active today who can do precisely what she wants. Her last two discs were huge best-sellers, despite the fact that one was devoted to obscure arias by Vivaldi and the other to selections from long-unheard operas by Gluck. How refreshing to see a musician of Bartoli’s stature and popularity use her clout to extend her own and her audience’s musical horizons while refusing to plunge into cheesy crossover projects. The Italian mezzo’s latest venture

into the unknown is called The Salieri Album, surely the most prominent attention this composer has received since Amadeus revived the ancient fiction that he had poisoned his younger rival, Mozart. Actually, Salieri was a composer of immense talent, success, and culture, whose reputation for generosity was legendary among a coterie of students that included Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt. His 39 completed operas covered nearly all the genres of the day, most of them undergoing fascinating transitions as the new century (1800) approached, and Bartoli offers a varied assortment of thirteen arias with Adam Fischer conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Salieri may be no Mozart, but his range is just as wide, his invention equally diverse, and his sense of theater unfailing. On this disc, he runs the gamut from a dizzy, mocking minuet to a serenely tragic contemplation of death written when he was only 21. In between, there are virtuoso showpieces, hilarious buffo send-ups, and elegiac romances, all enhanced by imaginative instrumental accompaniments. Bartoli has an uncanny ability to catch the distinctive musical and dramatic character of each aria, and her voice has never been more responsive. Some may be put off by the sheer ferocity of her coloratura and expressive devices, but I find them apt, thrilling, and awesomely accurate. This is a great singer at the peak of her powers.


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