Philadelphia Dazzles

            Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand for Piano and Orchestra lasts just under 20 minutes. It is fiendishly difficult, but still a light night’s work for a famous pianist given top billing on an orchestral program. So on Wednesday evening, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet supplemented the Ravel with a riotous performances of Liszt’s Totentanz, a set of demonically virtuosic variations based on the Dies Irae.

            The Dies Irae also shows up in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances from 1940, which anchored the second half of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s entertaining appearance at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Under the baton of Charles Dutoit, the orchestra offered a coherent, balanced, intelligently assembled program, all of it very much under the Gallic star. If the Symphonic Dances were written under the shadow of the Second World War, Ravel’s La Valse, which finished the program, was finished in the aftermath of the First World War. And it was striking to hear connections between La Valse and the much later piano concerto, and to hear hints of Stravinsky and Chinoiserie in Dutoit’s coloration of both Ravel works.

            It is also a delight to hear an orchestra play with an easy, reliable and tight ensemble. Dutoit’s conducting is loose-limbed and seemingly casual, but there is nothing haphazard in his leadership. He is currently serving a caretaker role, filling in as chief conductor and artistic adviser as the orchestra weathers a leadership crisis which includes a search for a new music director. But he has been conducting this orchestra for almost three decades, and orchestra and conductor are now symbiotically linked.  The barest hints of a tempo change, lightly telegraphed, produced electric results.  

            Thibaudet’s mix of Liszt and Ravel in the first half was performed as if Liszt were the dominant muse. The Ravel opened with more than the usual fury in the piano’s bass range, pushed to metallic brilliance, and perhaps pushed so far that later treble passages could only sound somewhat weak by contrast. Thibaudet seemed determined to make this a self-consciously big performance, importing some of Liszt’s virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake into the more subtle gardens of Ravel. The Left Hand concerto is one of Ravel’s most overtly emotional scores, but this was more about display than emotion.

            The same approach, applied to the Liszt, was dazzling and deliciously absurd, a performance so outrageous in its athletic extravagance that it left one smiling. Thibaudet’s glissando finger got a stern workout, and the pure, almost Prokofiev-like brilliance of the performance made the music seem trashy in a good way, lovably vulgar, even strangely radical in its contrast between inert substance and perpetually changing surface.

            Dutoit was a deft accompanist, though the ensemble was more reliable in the Liszt than the Ravel. In the Rachmaninoff, he held the reins more loosely, and the performance grew more diffuse, especially in the waltz movement. But it’s also possible that this was a deliberate interpretive choice: To emphasize the autumnal, to find the darker reflective spirit of the music, which often seems as much a summing up of a bygone age as Ravel’s La Valse. The woodwind ensemble, in the first movement, was a lovely, marred only by the slightly too-large sound of the very expressive saxophone.

            La Valse was urbane, and volcanic, a mix of refinement and violence. This piece almost always works, and sometimes it works so well as to be terrifying. This one of those times. Dutoit whipped it up rather like Joel Gray whips up the cabaret, creepy, knowing, insinuating, and suddenly crass. It was the Philadelphia Orchestra in very fine form, which is encouraging given their recent troubles.

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