Scanning the Philadelphia Orchestra's program for this week promised ultimate predictability: pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and chief conductor Charles Dutoit reprising their well-regarded recording of Ravel's
Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
, while Dutoit returned to the Rachmaninoff
, having recorded the piece years back with the orchestra. A rerun in the making? On Thursday, it was anything but.
Musicians naturally evolve in their view of any given work, but I didn't foresee such a dramatic transformation when the usually well-mannered, sometimes-bland Thibaudet began such a boldly drawn reading of the Ravel concerto. And though Dutoit's early-1990s Rachmaninoff recordings were criticized for being chilly and detached, the Symphonic Dances, written as the composer was meandering toward the grave, came off on Thursday like the work of somebody with no intention of leaving quietly.
Two other pieces on the program offered much to hear and lots to think about: Liszt's big-boned, virtuosic Totentanz guaranteed Thibaudet a standing O while also showing the composer deploying the "Dies Irae" chant for the dead like a gothic posture, in contrast to Rachmaninoff, who quoted it as a poetic signature.
Ravel's La Valse was a postscript to the Symphonic Dances, contrasting how composers of different temperaments portrayed the end of their eras. The usually melancholic Rachmaninoff waved goodbye to his milieu with a glittering, celebratory orchestration; the normally bright-eyed Ravel meticulously portrayed states of breakdown and decay with well-established themes losing their footing and slipping into anti-intuitive key changes.
Performances ranged from good to fabulous. Though the orchestra's intricate participation in the Ravel concerto wasn't rehearsed enough to swing, Thibaudet's confidence let him completely encompass Ravel's extremes - breezy jazziness and sinister undertones - with an intellectual command that allowed him to connect the interpretive dots in many unusual ways. What many pianists portray as echoes of pathos were phrased by Thibaudet as a healthy rejection of sentimentality. Most of all, he wasn't about to let Ravel seem quiet next to the broad strokes of Liszt. I haven't heard Ravel like this since the composer/performer Pierre Sancan recorded the concerto.
Though Totentanz is often played with a brute force and opaque piano sonorities, Thibaudet maintained his Gallic sense of elegance and clarity, making the virtuosic display even more impressive if only because the pianist gave himself no possible place to hide (and, after all, didn't need one). That clarity, however, revealed the piece itself as paper tiger with a less-than-interesting roar.
Rachmaninoff was a particularly splendid showcase for Dutoit's orchestral wizardry and the orchestra's color palette. Bombast was banned. Dutoit knows how to create an elegant but meaningful attack. Is it possible for music to be emphatically effervescent? Earnestly airborne? Dramatically weightless? With Dutoit, yes. The usually wistful saxophone solo was forthright. The final movement had a tight, fast tempo scheme that unfortunately ended with a nanosecond of clumsiness. Most important, the concert left you respecting (as well as loving) Rachmaninoff.