I haven’t heard much of the music of Krzysztof Penderecki. In 1973 I was greatly impressed by his opera The Devils of Loudun at the ENO in which Geoffrey Chard gave a memorable performance as Urbain Grandier. But that is a long time ago now. So to the New York Phiharmonic which performed his Concerto No. 2 for cello and orchestra directed by Lorin Maazel with Alisa Weilerstein as soloist. The concerto begins with a long orchestral introduction which is loud and of ominous intent. It would be disrespectful to suggest that the work should be named 50 ways to feel really anxious. The strings make sounds like air raid sirens; there are bursts of staccato playing from trumpets and eerie bells and gongs. The cello part which weaves in and out of this background was marvelously played by Ms. Weilerstein. It left me with the impression that it was a fascinating cello sonata trying to escape from the orchestra.
It would not be unfair to say that the program for this concert was strange. Prior to the Cello Concerto we heard Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, performed by two violas, two violas de gamba, cello, bass and harpsichord: the ensemble for which it was written. The unusual feature of the performance was that Mr. Maazel appeared to conduct it. I wasn’t the only person to think this was odd - the Times music critic mentioned it. I have enjoyed the performances of Brandenburg concertos which have ended Bach night at the AFCM Townsville in which ensembles of similar size have played the works with a vigour which makes the pieces sound as if improvised. There was no chance of that here under the conductor’s steady beat; but there was a lovely sound from the unusual combination of low strings.
After intermission there was an excellent performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The people next to me said they had heard it before and left at intermission. I may lack their sophistication but I stayed to the end.
New York Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall, 20 November 2008.