Ye gods!

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  April 28, 2010

The highlight of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s season closer was the encore by the extraordinary Dutch harpist Gwyneth Wentink, a graceful and affecting Sarabande and Ground, transcriptions of keyboard pieces by the 17th-century British composer William Croft. Wentink was here for the Ginastera Harp Concerto (1956), which now seems dated and shallow except for the brilliant harp passages. This was one of two Latin American works (the other was Silvestre Revueltas’s musically negligible six-minute Sensemayá) inspired by and echoing Stravinsky’s groundbreaking Sacre du printemps, with which BPO director Benjamin Zander ended the evening. All three pieces probably have too much “sound” for Jordan Hall (where I heard them). And the Stravinsky sounded particularly brutal, too loud too soon, and airless, burying mysterious detail, and missing the brash freshness of Zander’s 1991 live recording. The slower, quieter passages of the second part worked better. A couple of crucial solos (the opening bassoon, the closing flute arpeggio) were not up to technical snuff. The BPO Web site called this “the hottest concert that the BPO has ever presented.” But too little of it demanded of Zander the exploratory conducting we most admire him for.

Imagine an actor so bad, he seems to be reciting the phone book; then imagine an actor so good, he resists hamming it up and deliberately understates everything. In his Celebrity Series Chopin recital at Symphony Hall, pianist Maurizio Pollini veered between both poles. Mixing warhorses like the ultra-famous A-flat Polonaise and Funeral March Sonata with the less familiar F-sharp-minor Polonaise, the mostly minor-key Opus 30 Mazurkas, and the F-sharp-minor and C-minor Nocturnes, he played some parts with restraint (suggesting tension) and in others merely ignored Chopin’s dramatic mood swings, dynamic dynamics, and kaleidoscopic colors. Finally, in his first encore, the B-flat-minor Scherzo, we had real drama, with stunning dynamic variety (not just mf). And the Berceuse had a delicacy of touch his earlier heavy pedaling frequently overwhelmed.

I love Pollini’s new Bach disc, his Schubert, Stravinsky, Boulez (all Deutsche Grammophon). There’s something heroic about his against-the-grain Chopin, but in trying to avoid excess, he can leave out what’s most treasurable.

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