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date of performance: Oct. 13, 2007
At his best, Tchaikovsky vacillates between two extremes: insistently lachrymose melodies and explosively bombastic orchestrations, both in the most wonderful of ways. His emotions are always exaggerated—he wears them not on his sleeve but all over his body—but never insincere; he's melodramatic only in a strictly positive sense, like Douglas Sirk. (They call him an "arch romantic".) And on Saturday night, when Lorin Maazel led the New York Philharmonic in a series of Tchaikovsky pieces, they had the dynamic interplay between the two down pat.
This was in contrast to the Philharmonic's performance under Bramwell Tovey last November, when they played the Nutcracker Suite with what sounded like a mere lack of interest. (That they were playing against the energetic Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra was no help, either.) The night began with excerpts from Swan Lake (Op. 20), and from the opening "Scene: Moderato" from Act II, one of the most hauntingly ethereal pieces in the repertoire, you could tell they were in perfect form. That was followed by the alternating, perfectly-measured blusters and lush sweeps of Act I's "Waltz: Tempo di valse", but the real gem of the night was the performance of "Dances of the Swans: Variation V (Pas d'action)". It begins with a ripping harp solo, which gives way to a heartbreaking violin and harp duet; then, just when you think the heart cannot break any farther, it is entirely shattered by the violin's taking up of the duet with the cello. It is as gorgeous as any duet anywhere, from Romeo and Juliette at the balcony to "Au fond du temple saint" and the Philharmonic played it flawlessly, with the soloists nailing the aching phrasings. The finale, "Hungarian Dance," was highly charged and ended with such explosive force that Mr. Maazel was literally sent into the air.
Next was Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra (Op. 33). The cellist, Johannes Moser, was fine—his playing was elegant and dramatic—but as with most any piece that calls for extended solo it becomes a tad trying after a movement or two. Despite Mr. Moser's admirable virtuosity, how much consecutive cello can the ordinary ear register?
Closing out of the evening was a performance of the Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique (Op. 74), which I last heard the Philharmonic perform this summer in Prospect Park. But the Pathétique is a work so intense that it is lost in the parks, the notes literally drifting away into space. In the concert hall its brashness and tenderness echoed from wall to wall, leaving me stunned, as though I'd never heard the piece before. The symphony is unique in that it ends on a whimper instead of the customary bang (that is pushed up into the third movement, which generated a mistaken round of applause from the crowd; Maazel waited stiffly for it to end), but it's a fittingly plaintive conclusion as Tchaikovsky died several days after the symphony's original premiere.
At the very end of the performance Maazel left his right hand, and the audience, dangling mournfully for several seconds before marking that the piece had ended. It looked like he quickly wiped a tear from his eye as well, and it was good to know he and I were on the same page.