On a good night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic faces no more authoritative or demanding a leader than Erich Leinsdorf. Thursday evening, beginning a two-week visit to close the Philharmonic's Music Center season, Leinsdorf had a very good night.
In a program listing Mendelssohn's "Hebrides" Overture, the Second Piano Concerto of Bartok, Debussy's "Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune" and a suite from Stravinsky's "Firebird," the 73-year- old conductor elicited transparent textures, clarified architectonic values, justified slowish tempos and presided over splendidly realized solo-lines. The Philharmonic, which in recent seasons has appeared to be carrying on a love-hate relationship with Leinsdorf, on this occasion played near the top of its form.
Whatever the reasons, this was an exceptional performance, excitable but mellow, urgent but relaxed. It began with a balanced and practically slow-motion reading of the Mendelssohn overture in which the composer's layered orchestration seemed to be visually tangible, so clearly did its inner workings strike the ear.
The same clarity informed the Debussy piece and the "Firebird" suite, in which Leinsdorf allowed the orchestra its one huge climax of the evening--as well as its quietest moments. No dichotomy marked these extremes; both seemed to grow out of the musical moment. And neither raucousness nor inaudibility, of the kinds we have encountered earlier in the season, marred the conductor's logical and inexorable accounts of these works.
Vladimir Ashkenazy was the pianistic paragon in a handsome, kaleidoscopic and definitive performance of Bartok's exigent Second Concerto; one which found all the colors in the composer's rainbow and measured all the feelings in his emotional cup. And the level of attentive collaboration from Leinsdorf and the Philharmonic exceeded all requirements.
ANDRE WATTS AT THE AMBASSADOR
Andre Watts is a showman, a master of the grand flourish, a purveyor of the keyboard's physical possibilities in excelsis. And so fixated are his performances on telegraphing every interpretive quiver--via clenched eyes, grimacing face, shaking and nodding head, mimetic hands--that one wonders how much profundity is being sacrificed in the name of exhibitionism.
Or maybe there's not much to sacrifice.
At any rate, Watts had a smashing success with his audience Thursday at Ambassador Auditorium. The event, as originally conceived, was to feature the pianist and violinist Charles Treger playing all the Beethoven sonatas over a three-concert span. An Ambassador spokesman explained the series cancellation by way of "differences" between the musicians.
Since Watts enjoys the spotlight so and, indeed, brings a compelling virtuosity to the big, glittery concertos he frequently plays, the intimate duo wouldn't seem to be his metier.
And Thursday's agenda brought some proof that the exceedingly popular pianist fares better with music that is more decorative (Chopin) than contemplative (Beethoven).
Thus Chopin's "Revolutionary" Etude convulsed with sonorous thunder, the C-minor Nocturne rose to heights of grandeur and the "Cello" Etude became a thing of purling gorgeousness. Throughout this half, Watts' kinesthetically graphic way worked. But even amid the splendor, there were some skeletal, ruminative episodes that went dead.
Almost predictably, the pianist made bravura exercises out of Beethoven (the 32 Variations, E-flat Sonata, Opus 27, and "Moonlight" Sonata)--seizing on the violent mood swings as ends in themselves and issuing a lovely lyricism but rarely touching any real depth or connective tissue.