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Review: At the Philharmonic, a Taste of Holiday Bounty

Thanksgiving came a day early at the New York Philharmonic this year: the calories, the juicy fat, the whipped cream, the fun, the sense of endless bounty. The orchestra’s program at David Geffen Hall on Wednesday was an immersion in richness and in flashing, warming colors, and it left you like a good holiday dinner does: a little dazed, even happily drowsy, stumbling toward the subway truly full.

Conducted by Stéphane Denève, the music director of the St. Louis Symphony, the concert was très French — down to the tender Rameau encore played by the pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, who made his Philharmonic debut as the soloist in Ravel’s Concerto in G. (The program repeats on Friday and Saturday.)

At the center of that concerto is a time-suspending Adagio. But in Ólafsson’s performance, the dreaminess — the slight blur, the delicacy — bled into the two outer movements, too. Some pianists lean on the factory-machine regularity, the bright lucidity, of those parts to hammer home a contrast with the slow movement. But, as he also showed in a very different repertory at his Carnegie Hall debut in February, Ólafsson resists vivid contrasts.

It’s not that his touch is diffuse; it’s as clean as marble. And it’s not that the tempos he and Denève chose for the framing movements were slower than normal. But the effect Ólafsson got throughout, of a kind of virtuosic reticence, could be described in the same words I used for his performance in February: a “silk of sound, inward-looking and wistful in both major and minor keys, in both andante and allegro.”

“Céléphaïs” (2017), a nine-minute section from Guillaume Connesson’s symphonic poem inspired by the fantastical writings of H.P. Lovecraft, opened the concert with an extravagance that offers proof of the survival of the orchestrational panache of the French tradition: its lurid lushness and sly squiggles, brassy explosions and sensual strings.

Connesson’s precursors in that tradition got a hearing after intermission. The audience even got a second helping: The big, sweet slice of cake that is the Suite No. 2 drawn from Albert Roussel’s 1930 ballet “Bacchus et Ariane” was followed by another slice, the Suite No. 2 from another mythological ballet of the early 20th century, Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé.”

On paper this seemed like overindulgence; it kind of was, but who doesn’t like their potatoes two ways every now and again? And while there’s a familial similarity between these works, Roussel’s style is ever so slightly more angular, with an underlying feeling of logic distinct from Ravel’s billowy scene painting.

The Philharmonic played well throughout, riding the many waves and swerves of intensity and pigment, from dewy dawns to mellow dusks. There were some particularly notable contributions to the potluck: Ryan Roberts, just a few years into his tenure as the orchestra’s English hornist but already a pillar of the ensemble, matched Ólafsson’s eloquent introspection in the Ravel concerto’s slow movement.

The principal flute, Robert Langevin, unspooled his instrument’s classic glistening solo in “Daphnis et Chloé” with conversational ease. Cynthia Phelps, the principal viola, had a russet-color turn in the Roussel, and Roger Nye, unusually seated in the first bassoon chair for that work, played with honeyed serenity.

Unlike at most Thanksgiving dinners, by the end the fullness didn’t feel like bloat. The clear, cool acoustics of the new Geffen Hall work against textures getting too heavy; they favor breezy sleekness, which is perfect for Denève, whose music-making exudes relaxation without losing forward motion. A couple of hours later, I would have been more than ready to eat — I mean hear — some more.

New York Philharmonic

This program repeats through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.

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