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The New York Times: Venezuelan-born pianist Gabriela Montero in an auspicious Philharmonic debut

The New York Times
March 24, 2006
Music Review

Maazel Conducts New York Philharmonic in Emotional Schoenberg and Thoroughly Modern Rachmaninoff

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI

In the first two works on Wednesday night's New York Philharmonic concert, Lorin Maazel showed again how he can be an alternately confounding and astounding conductor.

He began with a baffling performance of Schubert's Symphony No. 5 in B-flat. Technically, it was flawless, with clear textures and beautifully balanced sonorities. Still, except for the sprightly last movement, the tempos were exasperatingly restrained. The beguiling slow movement sounded ponderous. This was Schubert as a proto-Bruckner.

But then Mr. Maazel led an electrifying account of Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31. Though only 20 minutes long, this is a colossal and, for many listeners, forbidding 12-tone work. Mr. Maazel's performance invited you to put all preconceived notions about tone rows out of your mind and just listen to Schoenberg's viscerally affecting music. The score's formal layout ? a theme with nine intricate variations and a rhapsodic finale ? was lucidly presented. Yet it was possible to let yourself be swept away by the emotional impact of the music: the sudden shifts from gnarly turbulence to delicate tenderness, the nervous contrapuntal scurrying, the wistful humor of the waltzing fourth variation.

With Mr. Maazel's assured conducting to rely on, the musicians were emboldened to play this challenging score with an arresting blend of accuracy and spontaneity. The Philharmonic last played this work in 1983 under Zubin Mehta. Mr. Maazel should bring it back often and give audiences more chances to hear what he hears in this landmark piece.

The idea of following the Schoenberg after intermission with a Rachmaninoff war horse, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Orchestra, seemed rather strange. But Mr. Maazel was up to something. Both works, after all, are sets of variations from the same period: 1928 for the Schoenberg, 1934 for the Rachmaninoff. Mr. Maazel seemed intent on emphasizing the modernist elements of Rachmaninoff's music, its wayward harmonic language and its bouts of piercing dissonance. To this end he had a strong ally in the Venezuelan-born pianist Gabriela Montero, in an auspicious Philharmonic debut.

Ms. Montero's playing had everything: crackling rhythmic brio, subtle shadings, steely power in climactic moments, soulful lyricism in the ruminative passages and, best of all, unsentimental expressivity. That she is also a tall, dark and lovely young woman can only help her career.

The concert ended with a glittering performance of "La Valse," Ravel's apotheosis of the Viennese waltz. For me, the playing was aggressively brilliant. But who cares? I'd go back to hear the Schoenberg and the Rachmaninoff.

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