NY Phil: Vaughan-Williams, Britten, Saint-Saëns - - 2/8/18
Jeanne and I heard the NY Philharmonic on 2/8/18. My boss, her husband, and some of their friends were at the concert and we met them at intermission - - I'll include some of their comments. The conductor was Antonio Pappano, and the program was:
Vaughan-Williams, *Fantasia on a Theme By Thomas Tallis*
Britten Piano Concerto
Saint-Saëns *Symphony #3* (aka "Organ Symphony")
The Vaughan-Williams was my favorite piece. It was for strings only, with nine players placed at the back of the stage. I assumed that they'd be doing something virtuosic over a carpet of strings, but I was wrong - - they played these haunting passages that emerged when the rest of the orchestra cut out, like the wind going through a wheezy old organ.
The music conveyed a deeply felt nostalgia for an England that might never have existed. It got more active and anxious later in the piece, but it seemed a wistful remembrance of anxiety. Tears, perhaps, but not tears of contemporary sadness. My boss's husband said that the piece was played quite a lot on BBC Radio during The Blitz, which makes perfect sense.
I enjoyed the Britten Piano Concerto a lot. The pianist was Leif Ove Andsnes, and he was marvelous. There were many rippling scales in one of the big piano solos, and he played them with ravishing, lyrical smoothness. The piece started off sounding like a modern take on the sonata form - - here's the bold opening theme, here's the lyrical, reflective second theme, and get a load of this development section. I was eagerly anticipating the triumphant return of the bold opening theme, but I fell asleep. I'll have to get a recording from the Public Library, I'm on tenterhooks! The finish of the first movement sounded like Britten just decided to end it with a couple of chords. Like he was late for dinner.
The piece, to me, sounded more like Shostakovich than like Britten. My boss's friend Peter said it definitely sounded "militaristic." Britten and Shostakovich were friends and admirers of each other's music, so this shouldn't be such a surprise.
The Saint-Saëns was the headliner on the program and the reason my boss was at the concert, it's one of her favorite pieces. Clearly it's a masterpiece, it's beautiful, it's well made, it's Romantic with a capital R, but it didn't really turn my crank. The writing was very confident but I'm not sure I'd say it was imaginative. It was a little cocky, like Saint-Saëns knew that people would be imitating him.
I will say he was clever to make the first entrance of the organ so quiet. You knew it was there, but you had to listen for it. And the big tune at the end is just plain glorious. My favorite moment of the piece was when the strings gave a full bow on each beat - - CHOP CHOP CHOP CHOP. That was fun to hear and especially fun to watch. It happens in this excerpt around 1:20. You can see the first violins in the lower left corner, then just past the organ, then finally they get their own close-up: