Music review: Emanuel Ax with Lionel Bringuier and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall
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What do you do if you are Shostakovich, you’ve been officially condemned and then rehabilitated by a murderous state, and you are trying to follow up a triumphant Fifth Symphony?
The obvious course would be to write an equally stirring sequel, hopefully with another ambiguous subtext that the authorities wouldn’t recognize. Instead, the beleaguered but not intimidated composer came up with one of the most bizarre symphonic structures he or anyone had ever conceived.
This Sixth Symphony opens with a massive, frightening, bleak, pessimistic movement marked Largo – the slowest tempo Shostakovich could think of – and closes with two short, flippant, sarcastic, even bawdy scherzos. Although the Sixth received much circulation when it was new, no one really got it – and only in recent times have we come to appreciate this lopsided piece for the quirks that baffled everyone in 1939.
Enter Lionel Bringuier, the wildly gifted 23-year-old associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. There are aspects of the Sixth that he does not quite feel yet at this stage in his young career, but they are overwhelmed by those that he can deliver right now.
Bringuier’s rendition of the long opening movement Thursday night was beautifully played and well-proportioned, with soulful solo flute work from Catherine Ransom Karoly. Yet it seemed emotionally reserved, not quite hopeless and chilling enough. Or maybe I’m wrong, for at the end, many in the audience burst out in a loud symphony of coughs as if they had caught colds in the Soviet chill.
But then, Bringuier showed that he understands the weird humor of those irreverent scherzos better than almost anyone. He took the tempos at a lightning pace, with the Philharmonic following right along without a hitch, and got the basses to dig into the rhythms. He brought off gigantic climaxes of impressive, even brutal power, only to slip back into the flippancies with such great timing that it made one laugh out loud. This was terrific Shostakovich conducting.
Bringuier also seemed to bring out the best in Walt Disney Concert Hall’s current resident Chopinist, Emanuel Ax, in the Piano Concerto No. 2. Ax, of course, is an old hand at this – he first recorded the piece when he was 28 (the L.A. Phil store was selling the CD edition downstairs) – and at 60, he was more ruminative, freer with the rubatos, yet clearer in articulation, and ultimately more interesting and probing.
The second movement was especially beautiful, with wide dynamic contrasts and searching drama in the center. With his crisp, vigorous accompaniment, Bringuier gave the orchestral part a lot more care and feeding than it usually gets – even more than the conductor on Ax’s recording, Eugene Ormandy, who was considered one of the best accompanists of his time.
Berlioz’s “Le Corsaire” Overture served as a preview of the evening’s coming attractions – precise, even brilliant playing in the extroverted sections, smooth and flowing elsewhere, rapier-like thrusts in phrasing.
The program repeats Saturday at Disney -- and Friday without the Shostakovich -- and on Sunday in Costa Mesa.
Don’t miss Bringuier while he’s still with the Phil; word is getting around, and a big post elsewhere looks to be in his future.
-- Richard S. Ginell
Emanuel Ax with Lionel Bringuier and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 3 p.m. Sunday at Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. Info: www.laphil.org and www.philharmonicsociety.org.
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