Debussy is one of the most popular composers in the world, and, of course, one of the best. He wrote a lot of piano music (along with tone poems, songs, etc.). Why did he never give us a piano concerto?
Well, he wrote a Fantaisie for piano and orchestra, in G. It was never performed in his lifetime, and he was deeply dissatisfied with it. It is seldom performed today—yet it was offered by the New York Philharmonic on Saturday night.
The Fantaisie has a couple of cousins, as I see it. I think of Fauré’s own Fantaisie for piano and orchestra, which is also in G. In 1972, Alicia de Larrocha made a well-known recording of it, with the London Philharmonic and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. I also think of Fauré’s Ballade in F sharp, which was originally a piano solo. Later, Fauré arranged it for piano and orchestra. Yuja Wang made a recording of the original a few years ago.
Well, what Frenchman was willing to give us a proper piano concerto? Ravel did, for one. He wrote two of them (though one was for the left hand alone).
For Debussy’s Fantaisie, the pianist on Saturday night was Leif Ove Andsnes, the famed Norwegian. Guest-conducting the Philharmonic was Edward Gardner, an Englishman. I want to say “Sir Edward Gardner,” because the name rolls off the tongue. And he will eventually be that anyway, won’t he? Isn’t that the course of the British maestro?
Andsnes played the Fantaisie as one would have expected. He plays uncannily like he looks. He is neat, immaculate—not a hair out of place. He is also brimming with musical intelligence.
The music under his hands was rippling, lapping. He always makes sure everything fits. He is a master of textures, balance, weights. He is like a pianistic craftsman, though that makes him sound too mechanical.
Like a concerto, the Fantaisie is in three movements, basically. (Technically, the work is in two movements, with the second having two sections, slow and fast.) In the first movement, Andsnes was nimble and sparkling. In the second, there was a nice tenderness, with a hint of whimsy. The closing movement, or section, brought sophisticated gaiety.
All through, the orchestra was colorful, dashing. I liked the boldness—even the bigness—of this performance. French music need not be un-big and un-bold.
Debussy’s Fantaisie has some lovely and inventive things in it. It is not a masterpiece, certainly by Debussyan standards. But would you and I be pleased to have written it? Yes, indeed.
Andsnes played an encore, more Debussy, one of the Estampes, namely “Jardins sous la pluie.” He played it more deliberately than most do. Often, this piece is headlong, toccata-like. Andsnes’s approach was effective. I might have liked the piece a little blurrier, a little Frencher—this pianist is always so neat and clear!—but it was nevertheless wonderful.
The concert had begun with a tone poem by Sibelius—Pohjola’s Daughter, which depicts a legend. What’s the legend about? Well, it’s an old story: a guy is trying to impress a chick, in vain.
Before giving the downbeat, Sir-Edward-to-Be turned to the audience, mic in hand, and talked. Ay caramba. Must they all do this, always? Must every concert be turned into elementary-school music appreciation? Gardner spoke charmingly—he’s English, remember—but still . . .
I could not hold a grudge against him because he conducted the tone poem so well, and the orchestra played it so well. It was cohesive, kaleidoscopic, and involving. To his credit, Gardner did not try to do too much. He was simply the composer’s advocate, presenting the piece as Sibelius wrote it.
Eileen Moon-Myers made beautiful sounds on her cello. Woodwind solos were stylish. Brass was smooth. The New York Philharmonic’s sound has been criticized over the years, including by me, but it was really impressive on Saturday night.
Pohjola’s Daughter ended with a beautiful tailing off. And it’s time for me to tail off, too . . .