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NSO and Busoni

available at Amazon
F. Busoni, Piano Concerto, G. Ohlsson, Cleveland Orchestra, C. von Dohnányi
(Telarc, re-released in 2002)
Ferruccio Busoni's piano concerto is an epic, crazy piece of music: over seventy minutes in length, in five movements, one of them involving a men's chorus chanting to Allah. Needless to say, one does not hear it live all that often, although there are a couple of pianists who will play it from time to time, including Marc-André Hamelin (who played the composer's second piano sonatina last year) and Garrick Ohlsson, who last night was the first to attempt it with the National Symphony Orchestra in over seventy years.

As excited as I was to hear this piece, in all its ungainly glory, what became clear in this performance is that this concerto can be a trial for the ears. Unwieldy in its proportions -- the introduction before the first solo entrance goes on forever -- there may not be enough bang for the buck when it is all said and done. Ohlsson had the piece mostly in hand, conquering the necessity of giving the solo part, at times, a scope equivalent to that of the entire orchestra, although there were a few minor blips here and there and the coordination with conductor Rossen Milanov, last heard with NSO in last year's Messiah, was not always optimal. This was most pronounced in the rather silly fourth movement, which devolves at times into an Offenbach galop and then a Rossini-overture crescendo, but perhaps too often the Lisztian excesses of the piece go too far. The Washington Men's Camerata was mostly solid in the last movement, on the text from the final scene of the verse drama Aladdin by Adam Oehlenschläger, which Busoni had long considered setting as an opera, although when the tenors were exposed at one point, the sound was not pretty. In the score, Busoni directs that the chorus should be "invisibile," a request that apparently could not be honored, since the singers were placed in full view in the chorister seats above the stage.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Pianist Ohlsson brings elegance to a whiz-bang performance of massive Busoni (Washington Post, November 21)

---, Pianist Garrick Ohlsson on Busoni’s 70-minute concerto: ‘A noble, beautiful work’ (Washington Post, November 20)
The last couple performances of Stravinsky's music for The Firebird have been of the complete score, last year from the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Valery Gergiev, and from the NSO in 2009 with Charles Dutoit. Milanov led the 1919 version of the suite, which greatly reduces the amount of music and the lavish orchestration, halving the numbers of woodwinds and eliminating many of the most inventive coloristic effects, and he did so with startling clarity. His approach tended to favor very slow tempi for the slow movements -- an ominous, oozing introduction, for example -- and perhaps an edge too breathless in the fast ones, like the Firebird theme. His gestures, though, were all razor-sharp, creating a delicate and warm "Round Dance of the Princesses" and a drowsy Berceuse, but also a savagely unified and harsh "Infernal Dance," with just a few fuzzy spots in the woodwinds and second violins. The only drawback was a somewhat flat conclusion, where the conductor's grim efficiency made the effect of the last few pages too mechanical.

This program repeats Friday and Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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