La Scena Musicale

Monday, 23 January 2012

Rare Szymanowski with Austin Symphony and Emanuel Ax a Texas Treat!

Mozart: The Impresario Overture
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2
Moniuszko: Bajka (A Fairy Tale) Fantastic Overture
Szymanowski: Symphony No. 4 “Symphonie Concertante” for Piano and Orchestra Op. 60

Emanuel Ax, piano
The Austin Symphony, Peter Bay, conductor
Michael and Susan Dell Hall
Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, Texas
January 13, 2012

We hear a lot about troubled orchestras these days. As the recession lingers on, ticket sales continue to be disappointing and donations are down. The orchestras that survive are the ones that tighten their belts and step up their marketing. They also tend to limit their programming to more popular fare.
The Austin Symphony has always prided itself on living within its means and in hard times, it is coping better than many other orchestras. In matters of repertoire, it treads carefully but occasionally allows conductor Peter Bay to shake up the mix. That was the case this week, with the audacious programming of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 4, Symphonie Concertante.

The music of Szymanowski (photo: right) is definitely not part of the
standard repertoire, but he is an important composer. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to see a production of his opera King Roger; I was struck by the theme of the work – the conflict between paganism and Christianity in Twelfth Century Sicily – and by the originality of the music.

Szymanowski was fascinated not only by the folk music of his native Poland, but also by the art and history of other cultures. His musical style has been called ‘Romantic Impressionism’ and while that is a fairly accurate descri
ption, it leaves out the spirituality and folkloric content of many of his works; in short, his was a unique voice in classical music in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

The Symphony No. 4, Symphonie Concertante, composed in 1932, had a major success at its first performance. Although it requires a virtuoso pianist, the orchestral part is more prominent than in the typical concerto; hence, the dual title of the piece.

In this Austin performance, soloist Emanuel Ax (photo: right) played with all the technical mastery the piece requires, fully exploiting its vast range of colours. In light of the fact that the orchestration is murky at times, the Austin Symphony could have used a little more rehearsal time, but on the whole this was a good performance of a work which should be heard more often.

Conductor Peter Bay came up with another Polish piece to set up the Szymanowski, but this programming was far less successful. Stanislaw Moniuszko (1819-1872) is at best a minor composer and his Bajka appeared to be a stop-start potpourri of forgettable tunes. Suppé did this sort of thing much better.

In the first half of the concert, Emanuel Ax gave a sparkling account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2; unfortunately, I still have ringing in my ears a superb performance of this same concerto from last October in Montreal. Till Fellner was the soloist with Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony. That performance had everything, including the sound of an exciting new concert hall that does wonders for the string instruments.

All in all, it was a treat to hear the Szymanowski Symphony No.4, Symphonie Concertante and special kudos are in order for a soloist of the stature of Emanuel Ax for bringing it to Austin.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductorpodcast, Classical Airs.

Photo of Maestro Peter Bay with Austin Symphony members, by Marita

Labels: , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home