The standard symphonic program of the none-too-distant past usually included a short opening work (the crowd-settler, to allow stragglers to take their seats), a concerto (to showcase the particular gifts of the current visiting virtuoso), and then the symphony (the conductor's show). Programming ideas have changed in the past two decades, but the concerto still remains central to the well-being of the orchestra concert. The intelligent music director tries to work a program around the concerto he and the soloist have chosen, or encourage the soloist to try something new. Ironically, in the attempt to achieve some sort of programmatic originality and cohesiveness, the warhorses tended to be overlooked, unless they were to be intentionally ``rethought.''
Now pianists are unashamedly confessing that they want to do a Liszt concerto. Violinists love to play the Mendelssohn. In so doing, they will not abandon the works they particularly believe in -- ones that are either too new or too little known to be part of the standard repertoire.
Of the various concerto performances I heard of note this season, most were of the ``warhorse'' variety. There were some exceptions, several of which have been discussed in these pages. Another particularly intriguing digression was offered by Malcolm Frager, who played the first version of Tchaikovsky's all-too-familiar First Piano Concerto, with the National Orchestral Association under the baton of music director Alvaro Cassuto.
In its first guise, Tchaikovsky the rhapsodist was more in the fore. The steelier aggressiveness of the final version sounds like a disappointing compositional choice after this encounter with the earlier version's rolled chords at the opening, and its slightly more varied and elaborated melodic thrust. There is no question that as a splendid virtuoso machine, the second version's drive to the finish line is more volatile and exciting. But Mr. Frager reveled in the first version's special qualities, even more than he did in the brilliant virtuoso finger work. Mr. Cassuto was an alert and energetic partner.
Mr. Frager was heard again, this time at the New York Philharmonic, where he offered Bartok's Third Piano Concerto, a work that has eluded many musicians altogether. Mr. Frager, one of the most thoughtful pianists before the public today, saw that at the core of this work lies a haunting lyricism and profound introspection. He easily tamed the challenging solo part, and with heartfelt care revealed the emotional message of this work. Erich Leinsdorf, the somewhat objectivist conductor, gave Frager a fine aural framework that did not intrude on the pianist's more personalized approach.
The most puzzling, and ill-advised, concerto performance I heard this season found Daniel Barenboim at the piano to play and conduct his Orchestre de Paris in Ravel's intricate Concerto in G major. It's a work of wit and charm that demands the conductor's undivided attention if it is to hang together. Pianist Barenboim took a heavy-handed, Teutonic approach to this most Gallic of works, while conductor Barenboim proved unable to keep his ensemble crisply together at most of the crucial moments.
Back at the New York Philharmonic, Alexander Toradze, deputizing for Ivo Pogorelich, turned in a brilliantly faceted, thrillingly played account of the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto, with Klaus Tennstedt the attentive, alert, compatible conductor. Rarely have I heard this concerto's blend of dizzying virtuosics and heart-rending rhapsody so effortlessly projected by a soloist -- played with heart and steel, fire and poetry, with a conductor who responded to every nuance the pianist was able to ferret from the work.
Another memorable concerto performance was heard with this orchestra when Zubin Mehta was joined by violinist Ida Haendel (justly celebrated on the other side of the Atlantic; here in a debut) for Sibelius's moody Violin Concerto. She is clearly trained in an older school than we are used to today -- a school that prized a strong yet individualized tone. Miss Haendel produced an unstinting sound from her instrument -- a tone capable of riding just about every climax, and able to communicate the melancholia of the second movement with particular impact. Nor were the pyrotechnics of the last movement given any less than their skillful due -- emphatic, exciting, distinctive playing. Jean-Louis Steuerman
I did not want to let the New York debut of Brazilian pianist Jean-Louis Steuerman pass without some mention. I had not planned to go to his Alice Tully Hall recital, but a friend called to offer a spare seat to what turned out to be a most remarkable debut.
Mr. Steuerman plays Bach on the modern piano with a delicacy and refinement of tone and a total grasp of the structural, musical, and intellectual properties of the two partitas offered (Nos. 5 in G major and 6 in E minor). He plays Berg (the Op. 1 Sonata) with not just a sensitive understanding of the piece itself, but a grasp of what it reflected and projected of Berg's artistry. Mr. Steuerman has the unflagging clarity of finger work to carry off the Schumann Toccata, and just the right sort of volatility to make Scriabin's Fifth Sonata something extraordinary to encounter.
Here then, is a pianist who feels the music from deep within himself, who has the superabundant technique with which to elaborate his views, and with enough personality to make it distinctive.