A Bold Pianist Rescues an Overlooked Concerto

Posted February 9, 2018 8:24 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Odds are you have never heard a performance of Britten’s Piano Concerto, even if you’re a regular concertgoer. The same holds true for another rarity, Debussy’s Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra. And while Rachmaninoff’s Second and Third Piano Concertos are staples of the repertory, his Fourth Concerto tends to turn up only when an orchestra is surveying all four.

Well, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has come to the rescue. For his stint this season as artist in residence with the New York Philharmonic, he made the adventurous decision to play these overlooked works on three programs. In October he gave an incisive account of Rachmaninoff’s Fourth that made a case for this episodic piece as its composer’s most experimental score. He will play the Debussy in April.

On Thursday, with Antonio Pappano on the podium, Andsnes gave an exhilarating performance of Britten’s unconventional four-movement concerto, last heard at the Philharmonic 36 years ago. Britten was just 25 when he composed it, in 1938, though seven years later he revised it (replacing the third movement, a Recitative and Aria, with an Impromptu).

I yield to no one in my admiration for Britten, and I’ve always liked this early concerto. But the vibrant, insightful performance Andsnes gave with Pappano and the Philharmonic was a revelation.

The concerto’s four movements have a slightly ironic, neo-Classical veneer. Andsnes delved beneath that surface to tease out the music’s mercurial shifts and manic energy. The piano writing is almost frenetically brilliant; Andsnes dispatched it with such effortless command and penetrating clarity that every burst of arm-blurring octaves, every tangled patch of passagework, seemed both meaningful and fantastical.

The first movement, a Toccata, opens with a rigorous statement of a stirring theme that soon fractures into a madcap rush of piano scales and glittering orchestral business. The second movement, innocently titled Waltz, emerged in this performance as a slyly luxurious, darkly manipulative dance. The Impromptu is structured like a Baroque passacaglia, with an insistent chorale-like theme put through myriad tinkling, brash and eerie variations. The work ends with a hypercharged, rhythmically rambunctious March, given a stunning performance here.

Pappano drew upon both his British upbringing and his Italian heritage in the program’s opener, Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis,” honoring the music’s mellow, modal beauties while inflecting it with Italianate intensity. And in a way, the program stayed in British mode for the final work: Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 in C minor, the “Organ” Symphony, first performed in London in 1886.

Perhaps nodding to British tastes, its composer folded elements of pomp and majesty into this French Romantic score. It’s not often played by the Philharmonic for a simple reason: The hall has no organ. The superb organist Kent Tritle made do with the electric facsimile provided him, with big speakers in the back of the stage.

Should a renovated David Geffen Hall — if there ever is one — include a permanent pipe organ? There are pros and cons.