Review: Nico Muhly’s Moody Concerto for Two Pianos

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Jaap van Zweden, the New York Philharmonic’s music director, designed an atmospheric program around the American premiere of Nico Muhly’s “In Certain Circles” at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night.

A concerto for two pianos and orchestra, “In Certain Circles” was written for the sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque, who performed the world premiere in Paris last year and returned to the work on Wednesday, in a program that also featured erotically charged works by Debussy and Wagner. “In Certain Circles” is an exciting new piece — focused, phantomlike, unafraid of sentiment — from a composer who has been in the public eye, and the cross hairs of critics, since shortly after earning his master’s degree from the Juilliard School in 2004.

Muhly became classical music’s darling. He worked with Philip Glass and Björk. There were profiles in the media and plenty of commissions, including the film score for “The Reader,” and a full-scale opera, all by the time he was 30 years old.

That opera, “Two Boys,” had its premiere at the English National Opera in 2011, and when it arrived at the Metropolitan Opera two years later, it sounded unripe. It was moody for sure — a detective story whose unease came from efficient musical motifs and natural, if plain spoken, recitative. Still, it felt like the soundtrack to a film that wasn’t there. “Marnie,” which came to the Met in 2018, was something less — a strained sophomore effort in search of maturity.

“In Certain Circles” is something more. It’s moody too, but there’s a freedom born from confidence that makes it satisfying. Here, Muhly develops musical ideas without being constrained by elements like plotting and vocal setting, as in the operas. It’s not that he’s suddenly employing the rigorous architecture of, say, a Beethoven symphony. Instead, like Debussy, he seems motivated by the sounds of the instruments themselves. They tell him where to go.

The tone of “In Certain Circles” is consistent — wispy and vaguely ominous — but Muhly is able to tell a three-part story with it. The orchestration is weblike yet spare, and somehow the two pianos are muffled within it. It’s a neat sleight of hand: Muhly scores the instruments in roughly the same range and gives the orchestra strong, independent lines, creating the sense of an encroaching threat.

In the first movement, “L’Enharmonique” — the name comes from Rameau — the orchestra takes an antagonistic stance toward the pianos. The brasses bray at them. The piccolos hector them like circling crows. All the while, the two pianists run and run, playing long, highly patterned stretches of 16th notes, unable to catch their breath. Then they repeat a series of rising chords that end on unstable tone clusters — a stairway to nowhere.

At the end of the movement, as the orchestra finally falls away, a musical fragment from Rameau emerges from the mist in a sweetly sad, delicate moment.

The Labèque sisters favor rhythmic precision and quick, sharp action — a solid way to achieve clarity in the double piano repertory — and they use dynamics rather than color to define phrases. On Wednesday, Katia Labèque, playing the Piano I part, finished phrases with a flourish of the hand and hopped up from her stool to use the force of her shoulders. Marielle, more collected, connected her notes fluidly.

In the second movement, “Sarabande & Gigue,” the orchestra suddenly sympathizes with the soloists by supporting the piano parts. The flutes echo the melodic line, like an act of kindness, and the strings provide harmonic reinforcement.

Named for two Baroque dances, the title is a bit of a feint: Muhly has both embraced and refused the forms. Yes, he wrote a saraband in its traditional three-quarter time, but it’s suspended, its feet hovering above the ground with a patient, forlorn, undanceable tune, played by Katia with sensitivity. The gigue, in compound time, whirls chaotically.

In the last movement, “Details Emerge,” the pianos assert themselves with rumblings in the bass and contrasting flights in the keyboard’s upper reaches. The orchestra reacts: The piccolos go wild, and the percussionists clash their cymbals and clap their whips. The Rameau fragment returns in the piano, but as an imperfect recollection. The orchestra, emboldened, winds up for the kill, but the piece ends abruptly, as if the lights went out before any victor in the concerto’s battle could be determined.

The evening’s other pieces — Debussy’s “Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune” and “La Mer,” and Wagner’s “Prelude and “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde” — beautifully contextualized Muhly’s concerto, even if their sensuality eluded van Zweden at the podium.

Both preludes were delivered by the Philharmonic players with generically sweeping strings and overly strict tempos. These pieces are about as explicit as classical music gets without a graphic-content warning. But at Carnegie Hall, they didn’t give off much steam.

New York Philharmonic

Performed Wednesday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.

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