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Howard Kissel

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Ravel et al. at the Philharmonic

Posted: 12/29/11 02:15 PM ET

Certain pieces, no matter how sophisticated your audio equipment is, can only be fully understood in the concert hall. Much of Ravel's orchestral output falls into this category, especially the two pieces the New York Philharmonic performed Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall. (The program will be repeated today and Friday.)

Ravel originally composed "Mother Goose" as a four-hand piece for the children of some friends. It is quite enchanting when you hear it on the piano, but the orchestral version is rhapsodic. Few composers knew how to use the orchestra as commandingly or as intimately as Ravel, and this is wonderfully apparent in "Mother Goose." At times the effects Ravel creates are delicate, at other times they are overwhelming. Only a virtuoso orchestra can convey the full impact. Under its musical director, Alan Gilbert, the Philharmonic sounded quite wondrous.

The waltz is a dance form we generally associate with peoples east of the Rhine but it reached its ultimate incarnation in Ravel's "La Valse," composed in 1919-20. Like his "Bolero," it is a fairly simple melody but repeated with increasingly voluptuous implications and building to a shattering, almost maniacal climax. It has often been seen as Ravel's comment on the seemingly civilized world that descended into mayhem and chaos in World War I.

It was my impression that Gilbert was giving that fraction of a beat ritard that the Viennese have always demanded in the performance of the classic waltzes, which here added to the sensuousness of the piece. Again, "La Valse" demands a virtuoso orchestra, and the Philharmonic played with a rapturous power and impressive discipline -- this is a difficult combination but Gilbert brought it off splendidly. The sense of a world gone awry was deeply palpable.

What had initially attracted me to the program was hearing the great Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter sing a group of celebrated Schubert songs with orchestral accompaniment. Von Otter was in rich voice and she interpreted the songs with her customary sensitivity. But I found myself not warming to the orchestral settings, one by Benjamin Britten, four by Max Reger. They seemed more diffuse, far less dramatic than the more familiar piano accompaniment. I don't know if greater familiarity with them would change my mind. I suspect not.

The evening began with Haydn's "Symphony 88 in G Major," one of the most imposing and beloved pieces in the standard repertory. It fairly embodies the sense of balance and joyfulness we often associate with the 18th century. All its high spirits were evident in Gilbert's interpretation.

For the holidays the stage of Avery Fisher has been gussied up. There are red and purple curtains along the back wall and what look like garlands made of leftover tinsel under the sound baffles on either side of the stage. These attempts at brightness, I'm afraid, only accentuate the dismalness of the hall itself, an ironic testament to its designer, Phillip Johnson, one of the great tastemakers of the 20th century.