Los Angeles Philharmonic

    Yannick Nezet-Seguin, guest conductor
    Martha Argerich, piano soloist
    13 March, 2009
    Walt Disney Concert Hall
    Ravel: La Valse,
    Piano Concerto in G
    Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5

    By Fred Granlund         

      Some artists become legendary during their own lives, either because of superhuman
    accomplishments (one thinks of Richter or Oistrakh), eccentricities (Glenn Gould, Sergiu
    Celibidache) or, not uncommonly, both. Pianist Martha Argerich certainly fits the description, and
    for both reasons. Often during her long career she has treated us to spellbinding performances of
    breathtaking virtuosity and blinding musical insight, but her willingness to test that insight with new
    ideas occasionally leads her into caricature-like readings and her prolonged absences from the
    concert stage and penchant for cancelling as many engagements as she plays seem only to add
    to her mystique. This time, she did appear (quite grandly), played with her customary brilliance
    and only once drifted into exaggeration in place of perfection.
    Her vehicle was the familiar Concerto in G by Ravel, a specialty of hers for many decades, and
    compared to her early recording of the work it must be said that her performance now has gained
    impressively in poise and depth. Of course, the work is a saucy, jazzy romp that might seem
    incompatible with those qualities, but Argerich found its natural moments for reflection and made
    them almost profound. Ravel might have been surprised (not to say scandalized) by her time-
    suspending ruminations in the opening movement, but they were a welcome respite from the
    dazzling brilliance around them; and the finale was even more brilliant. Only in the serene central
    movement did her expressive rubati go too far in disrupting the hypnotic siciliana rhythm
    (Michelangeli showed us how to achieve both hypnotism and fluidity at the same time--a truly
    magical effect).
    The guest conductor for the occasion was the young Canadian Yannick Nezet-Seguin, who not
    only managed to keep up with his hardly-predictable soloist (a feat in itself) but fully matched her
    imaginative approach to the Concerto. And in the concert's opening work, Ravel's La Valse, he
    even surpassed her at taffy-pulling rubati and surprising tempo manipulations. It was all quite
    effective, if occasionally bizarre, but Ravel's over-the-top caricature of the Viennese waltz invites
    that sort of treatment, and it's actually rare to find a conductor willing to take it this seriously.
    The serious challenge, however, was the familiar-but-still-enigmatic Fifth Symphony by
    Shostakovich that occupied the second half of the concert. Here the young maestro reaffirmed his
    willingness to engage the music on its own terms, maintaining impressive concentration during the
    quiet moments and neither slighting the massive climaxes nor allowing them to degenerate into
    empty bombast. He steered a central course between the works layered meanings (obedient
    Soviet optimism on the surface, surreptitious sarcasm and tragedy beneath) and avoided
    exaggerating either extreme. He only approximated the composer's very slow tempo indications,
    and tended toward awkward gear-shifts instead of integrated transitions, but the overall shape of
    the work was secure, along with the passion to hold it together. The details may well sort
    themselves out over the next few performances. In any case, with such an impressive debut
    behind him, Nezet-Seguin will undoubtedly be back in future seasons, and we will have the chance
    to see what develops.
    Throughout the evening, the Philharmonic was in top form, playing with their customary precision
    and intensity. In the Concerto, it was impossible to tell whether they were following the conductor's
    emphatic gestures or simply playing chamber music with the soloist--but the result was seamless.
    And the opening waltz-mania and concluding symphonic grandeur were quite stunning. As always,
    the Disney Hall audience was wildly appreciative, and the conductor--who knew exactly why it all
    sounded so spectacular--called for solo bows from all the principals, led by Catherine Ransom
    (flute), Ariana Ghez (oboe), Lorin Levee (clarinet), Shawn Mouser (bassoon) and William Lane
    (horn), and eventually including everyone on the stage. A similar uproar before Intermission had
    led to well-deserved recognition for the major contributors, including the redoubtable Mr. Lane
    and the ever-captivating Ms. Ransom, as well as for Carolyn Hove's ravishing English Horn solo in
    the Concerto. But the soloist remained the center of attention, as she commandeered the
    conductor as her keyboard partner for the "Fairy Garden" finale from Ravel's Mother Goose suite
    and, after much coaxing from the audience, returned once more for a Chopin mazurka. Certainly
    in the minds of her admirers, she truly is a legend.
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