Flights of colorful fancy and heroic struggles characterized the Los Angeles Philharmonic concert Thursday at Walt Disney Concert Hall when Christoph von Dohnanyi led a program of Messiaen and Beethoven, with pianist Peter Serkin as the soloist. Messiaen, as it turned out, proved more captivating than Beethoven.
Serkin was filling in for Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who withdrew on doctor's advice because of back strain. Aimard was praised by Messiaen for performances of his music. But Serkin brings bona fides to the table too.
He was one of the founders of Tashi, an ensemble formed in 1973 specifically to play Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time." Earlier this year, which is also the Messiaen centennial, Tashi performed for the first time in 30 years, and a highlight of the concerts that the group played across the country was that Messiaen quartet, composed in a Nazi prisoner of war camp in 1940-41.
Serkin was also the pianist at the first Philharmonic performance, in 1973, of Messiaen's "Oiseaux exotiques" (Exotic Birds), also on the program.
In the only program change resulting from Aimard's withdrawal, Janacek's "Capriccio for Piano Left Hand and Winds" was dropped. Instead, Serkin played Messaien's last solo work for piano, "Petites esquisses d'oiseaux" (Little Sketches for Birds), to open the concert.
The work consists of six short pieces, with the first, third and fifth devoted to the robin, and the others to the blackbird, song thrush and skylark. Serkin was deeply focused on the music and executed its chattering, colorful flourishes and velvety excursions around the keyboard with consummate commitment and skill.
There was a sense of the robin being progressively subdued by its louder-voiced bird-fellows, but this may have been only one listener's reactions to this evocative, freewheeling music.
"Exotic Birds," for piano and 18 wind and percussion instruments, which followed, has been described as the closest the composer came to writing a piano concerto. It has strikingly difficult piano passages that might easily qualify as cadenzas were they not so tightly integrated into the rest of the piece. Dohnanyi let Serkin pretty much have his dazzling way with these solo moments. Otherwise, the conductor executed strict controls.
There are supposed to be references in the piece to some 60 birdcalls. But it sounded less like an ornithological catalog than a fantastic, beguiling sound painting in delicate and bold colors and free rhythms. Time was suspended and space was enlarged.
A dozen string basses onstage after intermission suggested that Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, which closed the program, was not going to get a scaled-down, period-practice performance. In fact, there were about 75 musicians. But a big sound did not equal big feeling. Dohnanyi led an almost antiheroic performance.
The reason wasn't just his tendency toward speedy tempos. His propensity for buttery attacks, long, inwardly unarticulated phrases and blended textures tamped down dramatic contrasts and stifled individual voices.
The main theme of the first movement lacked urgency and a sense of forward striving. The funeral march was a homogenized affair.
The galloping rhythms of the scherzo were taken with astonishing lightness -- here, as elsewhere, the orchestra gave the conductor everything he wanted -- but they lacked the tension of off-centered jostling against each other. Even the andante in the finale, a kind of recollection of the departed, was wanting in feeling.
Dohnanyi tamed the Beethoven beast, but at a huge cost to the music and the composer.
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 tonight; 2 p.m. Sunday
Price: $40 to $142
Contact: (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com