Photo, Brandon Patoc

Friday, February 23, 2024

Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Guest Reviewer, Susan Stempleski

The centerpiece and highlight was Anders Hillborg’s Second Piano Concerto. Premiered last October in San Francisco, conducted by Salonen, the work received its third New York performance with the Philharmonic on this night. It’s skillfully crafted, written for Emanuel Ax, and intended as a multifaceted portrait of the pianist, a longtime friend of the composer, cast in a single twenty-minute span. The MAX in the subtitle stands for “Manny Ax”, mirrors and, as Hillborg says, “the exuberance and geniality of this outstanding pianist”, the all-caps styling suggesting the artist’s powerful pianism. Comprised of nine sections carrying evocative titles tied by artful transitions, the music is majestic, high-spirited, forceful, witty, and reflective. 

‘Grand Piano’ opens in a quasi-heroic mode with a sweeping run across the keyboard that harkens back to the bravado of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto and later Romantic models. Hard Piano” isa toccata-like section of spiky passagework that shifts into an dense, fast-paced cadenza. In the sweeping conclusion, ‘Ascending Piano’, a grand gesture from the soloist yields to an ending that softly floats off into space. Ax’s vivacity and sometimes understated virtuosity radiated throughout the performance, as he traversed the complex score – with its finger-busting passages, dissonances, and wide-ranging tempos and dynamics – with ease.  The accompaniment was similarly expert. Among the most appealing aspects is the frequent coupling of the piano with other instruments – bright colored passages that play along with the piccolo or other woodwinds, cascading figurations set against gleaming string sounds, tinkling high notes matched with bell sounds. The Philharmonic excelled in those moments, Eun Sun Kim keeping the players in perfect sync – even when tempos slowed to near stillness, or dynamics diminished to their softest levels.

Kim achieved far less impressive results in a dispassionate rendering of Sibelius’s Finlandia. As the performance slogged along, one was at loss to detect enough rip-roaring fervor for it to be deemed overly patriotic by the Russian authorities and banned during that country’s occupation of Finland. The program closed with Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony. While this was a less than totally magnetic reading, Kim elicited some splendid playing, most notably the strings in the very Slavic secondary theme of the first movement, and the lovely solo passages for horn and violin in the central Adagio. Her treatment of the Finale was uncommonly expansive, and she managed to hold the structure well enough together to bring the Symphony to an invigorating close without going over the top.

Susan’s review will also be published on The Classical Source website