The New York Times - Friday, July 25, 2008 - Written by Anthony Tommasini

From a Veteran at the Keyboard, a Mozart Staple and a Finger-Busting Ravel

In the 1950s, when the French pianist Philippe Entremont emerged on the international scene, he was hailed as a distinctive artist who combined Old World French refinement and youthful virtuosity. His recordings of concertos by Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns and Ravel were big sellers.

In the 1970s Mr. Entremont shifted his focus to conducting, taking posts with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra (for nearly 30 years) and the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra, among others. Opinion was divided about his conducting. I recall some quite ineffective concerts he presented with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra during the 1980s, when his work both as conductor and pianist, leading Mozart concertos from the keyboard, was mannered, listless and overly plush.

Now 74, Mr. Entremont gave a piano recital at Mannes College the New School for Music on Wednesday evening as part of the International Keyboard Institute and Festival. Jerome Rose, who directs this annual event, has made a point of including veteran artists who have been out of the loop for a while. The auditorium was packed, evidence of the regard Mr. Entremont built up as a pianist during a long career.

He opened the program with Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A (K. 331), the piece that ends with the “Turkish Rondo,” a staple of the student pianist’s repertory. As Mr. Entremont began the main theme of the first movement, some fudged passages and blurry pedaling seemed worrisome signs. But he soon settled down and played with poise and sensitivity. By taking his time, making the most of each lyrical turn of phrase and observing all the structural repeats, Mr. Entremont had this single movement, a theme and variations, seeming like a significant 15-minute piece unto itself. The Menuetto was hardy and jocular. He played the rondo with dash, delicacy and whiplash articulation of the rolled left-hand chords that evoke the Turkish drums and cymbals.

Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata might not be the wisest choice for Mr. Entremont, given his diminished technical resources at this stage of his career. His finger work, for the most part, was nimble and clear, but leaps and bursts of fortissimo chords gave him trouble. This was a rather atmospheric account of music usually mined for its rhythmic intensity and sudden dynamic contrasts.

The all-French second half offered works by Debussy and Ravel. There were curious moments at which Mr. Entremont’s playing of surging passages in Debussy’s “Images,” Book 1, especially the middle section of “Reflets Dans l’Eau,” turned clangorous and steely. But mostly he played with an ear for intriguing inner voices and hazy colorings, as well as effortless glissandos in his exuberant account of Debussy’s suite “Pour le Piano.”

If a phrase here and there was muffed in Mr. Entremont’s performance of Ravel’s finger-twisting “Alborada del Gracioso,” it was enjoyable to hear him cutting loose to relish the piece’s snappy dance rhythms and sultry harmonies.

For an encore, Mr. Entremont played Chopin’s Polonaise in C sharp minor, conveying both the burly vigor and the ruminative tenderness of this mercurial work.

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