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New York Philharmonic Present "Pictures at an Exhibition"

Susanna Mälkki conducts the New York Philharmonic with Pierre-Laurent Aimard performing Ligeti Piano Concert. Photo by Chris Lee

At Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, on the evening of Saturday, November 4th, I had the exhilarating pleasure of attending a marvelous concert featuring the New York Philharmonic under the exceptionally impressive direction of the Finnish conductor, Susanna Mälkki.

The first half of the program was devoted to music by Hungarian composers, opening with a charming diversion—a performance of the immensely famous Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 of Franz Liszt, transcribed here for the cimbalom by the admirable soloist, Jenő Lisztes. Encountering this work played on this somewhat exotic instrument foregrounded its affinities with Central and Eastern European folk music but it would have been more enchanting in an orchestral version or even in its original form for the piano. Nonetheless, the audience was apparently delighted, responding with an enthusiastic ovation.

More remarkable was the ensemble’s superb account of Béla Bartók’s splendid Romanian Folk Dances, BB 76, which vary across a range of moods and styles—plaintive, ebullient, lyrical, and so forth—although, surprisingly, these exquisite pieces are maybe equally haunting when presented on the piano. The renowned virtuoso—surely one of the greatest of our time—Pierre-Laurent Aimard, then entered the stage to perform the perplexing Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by the celebrated avant-gardist, György Ligeti, whose centennial is being celebrated this year. I am not really competent to evaluate the merits of this intractable score but the initial movement, marked Vivace molto ritmico e preciso, is vigorous and arresting while the ensuing Lento is enigmatic, meditative, and eccentric, becoming highly dramatic. The scherzo that follows—with a tempo of Vivace cantabile—is not especially playful in tone despite its genre. The penultimate movement—Allegro risoluto, molto ritmico—is forbidding in its inaccessibility while thePresto luminousfinale is ludic if also inscrutable.

The summit of the evening, however, was achieved in the event’s second half—a stunning realization of Maurice Ravel’s brilliant orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky magnificent Pictures at an Exhibition. The “Gnomus” episode—the first of the “pictures”—is uncanny and arresting and the succeeding “Il Vecchio Castelo” is elegiac and mysterious. The “Tuileries” section is brief but effervescent and the “Bydlo” movement—“Polish Ox-Cart”—is strangely ominous. It precedes the jocular “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” and the solemn “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle.” Next is the lively “The Marketplace at Limoges” and the lugubrious, portentous “Catacombs: Roman Burial Place.” Eerie but serene was “With the Dead in a Dead Language” while “The Hut on Chicken Feet: Baba-Yaga” was exciting, sinister and dynamic. The panoply concludes thrillingly with the majestic and triumphant “The Great Gate of Kiev.” The artists deservedly received abundant applause, closing a memorable concert.

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