Martin: Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments; Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto; Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra

Philadelphia Orchestra| James Ehnes | Charles Dutoit

Carnegie Hall, New York, 19 February 2012 4 stars

Philadelphia Orchestra Almost exactly equidistant from Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center stands the building where Bela Bartok, Hungary's greatest national treasure – he was actually elected to Parliament in 1945 but was too ill to return home, spent his last years in rather humbled circumstances. He was not, as many believe, the pianist with Benny Goodman when his trio Contrasts was premiered at Carnegie, but he did perform occasionally in this city, most often at Town Hall with his wife Ditta Pasztory. To a 21st century observer, the presence of Bartok, like that of Mahler, who lived just on the other side of Carnegie at what was then called the Nederland Hotel, is clearly felt in this little musical neighborhood.

Bartok's last days were filled with thoughts of money, not dreams of wealth but rather desperate endeavors to provide some sort of nest egg for Ditta. He worked on the Viola Concerto for William Primrose, the Piano Concerto No. 3 in an idiom designed so that his widow would have something to play relatively easily and lucratively (in hindsight this did not work out very well), and, prior to these two "unfinished" pieces, he created for the Boston Symphony commission arguably the greatest work of the 20th century. Charles Dutoit, in the last months of the interregnum at the Philadelphia Orchestra, featured that Concerto for Orchestra on Tuesday evening at Carnegie Hall.

The night opened rather mysteriously as the entire first row of seats on stage was empty. Even when the concertmaster emerged, he sat in the second row. Then the soloists came out: seven wind players assigned to blow a rather delightful bit of Neoclassica somewhere between Stravinsky and Poulenc. Richard Strauss had described himself as the best of the second rate composers in the Germanic tradition. In the Gallic world, that mantle could easily be worn by Frank Martin. There was some shakiness among the soloists, particularly the horn, but overall this was a charming piece led by a maestro who does indeed do charming well (his readings of the Prokofieff Classical Symphony are fine examples). The crowd did not fill Carnegie Hall as this was Valentine's Day evening and many were otherwise engaged, but those who were there were well entertained.

Philadelphia's newly designated music director is from Canada as is violinist James Ehnes, who performed a very fine and finely focused Mendelssohn Concerto. It was quite glorious to realize that there was at least one other fiddler besides Joshua Bell who is under fifty and possesses a masterful vibrato. No other piece cries out for this particular technique more plaintively than this one, and yet many modern violinists have expunged the wobble in the name of aesthetic "purity". Not so Mr. Ehnes, who reveled in his rich enunciation and Romantic phrasing. The orchestra matched him stroke for stroke. After a rousing ovation he announced that he would also present the 16th Caprice of Paganini and received more thunderous applause. I actually prefer the 12th but there was clearly a strong booster section for this particular exercise in attendance this night.

After intermission we were treated to a typical Dutoit performance. There are those conductors (Gergiev and Barenboim come to mind) who are maddeningly inconsistent, masterful one evening, horrid the next, sometimes both in the same concert. Maestro Dutoit is maddeningly consistent, always offering a solid but never truly inspired performance. I have heard him many times, from the years partnering with Argerich through Montreal and now Philadelphia. All of his concerts are both satisfying and disappointing. This night was no exception.

The ensemble itself shone in the Bartok, performing with the crispest of attacks, the steadiest of articulation, the ne plus ultra of intonation. However, much of the mystery was simply missing, the normally phantasmagoric Elegie rather straightforward. Further, Mr. Dutoit, as is his wont, downplayed the effects in this piece, a particularly egregious offense when the work is titled so painstakingly by Bartok. Percussion passages were de-emphasized; harps were inaudible. In one presentation, Mr. Dutoit told the story of his own musical value: an excellent steward in a difficult spot between music directorships, keeping the players honed properly, but, in the end, not a poetic conductor.

Oddly, this pedestrian approach did heighten the outrageous humor of the fourth movement as the misanthropic Bartok dares to parody the stirringly patriotic utterances of Shostakovich from his Symphony No. 7. The Dutoit approach eschewed the big, bold burlesque in favor of a quieter, more subtle reading with the Grand Guignol ending articulated so softly as to be almost a whisper. Old Bartok the trickster coming out just one more time in a wryly derisive little phrase, one last understated thumbing of the nose at conventional ideas of good and evil. An actual little laugh forced its way out of my mouth, an exclamation that will remain in my memory long after this performance as a whole is catalogued and shelved in the cranial recesses. For someone who grew up with this piece (we are almost exactly the same age) this experience was revelatory. Merci, Monsieur Dutoit.

By Fred Kirshnit

Credits: Jennifer Taylor