Above: Christoph von Dohnányi
Thursday December 11th, 2014 - Maestro Christoph von Dohnányi, who had canceled last week's concerts with The New York Philharmonic due to illness, took the podium tonight for an all-Dvorak programme: the elegant pianist Martin Helmchen made a highly successful Philharmonic debut, and the orchestra gave a grand reading of the composer's New World symphony.
In contrast to the previous evening's American Symphony Orchestra programme at Carnegie Hall with its thought-provoking and musically complex trio of works by Vaughan Williams, Ligeti, and Schnittke, tonight's pairing of the Dvorak piano concerto with the New World had a comforting feeling to it; the beautiful melodies simply wash over us and we feel pleased and reassured, though our deeper emotions are rarely engaged.
Pianist Martin Helmchen (above) displayed impeccable technique and a sense of Old World courtliness, the boyish pianist's pale complexion and curly hair reminding me of old portraits of Vincenzo Bellini. His rippling scalework and the forward impetus of his playing in the opening Allegro agitato were very impressive, as was his phrasing and his rapport with the conductor and orchestra in the central Andante sostenuto - at the end of which he produced a marvelous sustained trill. In the flourishing passages of the final movement, the pianist was simply dazzling. Mr. Helmchen's technical mastery was at full-sail throughout the concerto, with the orchestra lending vibrant support (the horns and clarinet have featured passages, very well-rendered tonight). The audience were warmly appreciative of the pianist's unbounded virtuosity; I sincerely hope we shall soon have another chance to experience Mr. Helmchen's artistry here in Gotham, perhaps in a work where his more poetic aspects might be given fuller opportunity to shine.
Maestro von Dohnányi, now in his 85th year, has undoubtedly conducted the New World dozens of times over his long career, so he didn't need a score tonight. And the musicians likewise have this music in their blood - they played it as recently as a year ago - and so when the Maestro stepped firmly onto the rostrum and launched into the symphony, it was destined to be a sterling performance.
The Philharmonic's strings were at their most opulent (in a rather unusual seating arrangement, the double basses were on the conductor's left rather than his right); and the horns and the various woodwind voices were summoned forth with evocative clarity. The melodies, so familiar, flowed broadly, with the particularly appealing theme played by the English horn in the Largo outstandingly rendered tonight. The more fiery passions of the final movement ignite our imagination, drawing us at last beyond the purely comforting pleasures the evening had thus far provided.