Saturday, January 14, 2006

CONCERT REVIEW: Pianist performs one-handed feat

By Janelle Gelfand
Cincinnati Enquirer, January 14, 2006

Tackling it with two hands would be difficult enough. But pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard made an impressive Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra debut Friday morning using just one hand, in Ravel's Concerto in D for the Left Hand.

The Left-Hand Concerto was part of a 20th-century program that opened the symphony season's second half in Music Hall. In a thoughtful juxtaposition, Paavo Järvi framed the concerto with suites extracted from operas: Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes and Hindemith's Mathis der Maler. Both were exceptional ways to showcase the orchestra.

Maurice Ravel wrote his Concerto in D for Paul Wittgenstein, an Austrian pianist who lost his right arm in World War I. (How inspiring it must have been to see him perform it in Cincinnati in 1934.) Full of pitfalls, the piece has keyboard-spanning arpeggios and intricate passagework that must be performed while bringing out the melody - all with one hand.

Aimard, an extraordinary pianist who was born in Lyon, France, and is known as a champion of new music, was clearly up to the task. The singing tone he projected in the lyrical passages was lovely and his scherzo passages were light and playful. He dashed off technical feats with an easy grace, and his final cadenza rippled with breathtaking color.

Perhaps because the pianist used the score, he struggled a few times through Ravel's fiendish leaps and I wished for more sparkle. But what a tour de force, nonetheless. Järvi was a sensitive partner and brought out the jazz overtones of the piece wonderfully.

The program opened with Britten's Four Sea Interludes. The tragic opera takes place in a town by the sea, and the interludes evoke a chilling, desolate quality. Järvi's view was intense, with an ominous undercurrent always evident, even in the bright "Sunday Morning" interlude. The musicians turned in a vivid, precise performance that was gripping for its haunting quality.

Clarity, drama and urgency were also hallmarks of Mathis der Maler which concluded. Taken from Hindemith's opera about the German artist Mathias Grunewald, each movement depicts one of Grunewald's paintings.

Järvi's view was sharply etched, and he illuminated the strings' counterpoint against the powerful chords in the trombones. The strings shone in this symphony, playing with precision and rich color. Flutist Randolph Bowman and oboist Lon Bussell made beautifully phrased contributions to the "Entombment" interlude.

The spacious brass chorale that concluded was stunningly performed and made a monumental summation to the piece.

The concert repeats at 8 p.m. today in Music Hall. Tickets: (513) 381-3300.

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