Friday, January 19, 2007

CONCERT REVIEW: Classical standards played with passion

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By Janelle Gelfand
Cincinnati Enquirer, January 19, 2007

For his second concert of the New Year Thursday night, Paavo Järvi brought an evening of warhorses. Even though these were guaranteed crowd-pleasers, one would be hard pressed to find a more visceral and tragic reading of Tchaikovsky's great Symphony No. 6, "Pathetique."

Järvi opened his Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra program before a good-sized Music Hall crowd with Verdi's Overture to "I vespri Siciliani" and closed with the "Pathetique." For the centerpiece, the evening's soloist was French pianist Helene Grimaud in Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor.

But it was Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony that will remain as one of the most hauntingly beautiful performances of the season. The composer's final work is also his most emotional, ending with a mournful, drawn-out finale. He died a week after its premiere.

From the outset, Järvi's reading was broad, powerful and intensely personal. It was a study in contrasts. The introduction was exceedingly slow, with long pauses before the famously beautiful second theme. Attacks and climaxes were electrifying, once causing the audience to visibly jump in their seats.

He drew memorable sonorities from the orchestra, such as the warmth of the cellos in the second movement, an asymmetrical waltz. The third movement, a march, was taut and crisp, with a relentless buildup that seemed to stretch the players to the limit. Nothing was glossed over; every note had character. It ended in an explosive show of force, with great crashes in the bass drum and timpani, as Järvi plunged ahead with little pause to the finale, foiling the audience's urge to clap.

What followed took you to another place. It was perhaps the most shattering reading of this movement you'll ever hear, and delivered with complete spontaneity. With the conductor galvanizing them, the musicians performed with considerable passion, and nothing about their music making was predictable.

Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 was less satisfying. It, too, is a work of passion, but the concerto emerged as more of a mechanical exercise. Grimaud, 37, a media darling because of her penchant for raising wolves, may look petite but she has fingers of steel. Possessing spectacular technique, she tackled immense double-octave passages and other difficulties unflinchingly. Her percussive style of articulation made for some fireworks, but resulted in little nuance or depth, and soon became wearisome. The slow movement especially was a disappointment. Pedaling muddied the soft passages, and more could have been made of the play between light and dark, major and minor.

So, it was the orchestra that provided the work's majestic, sometimes brooding quality. The horn calls in the chamber music-like moments were stunning.

For the curtain-raiser, it was a treat to hear the Overture to "The Sicilian Vespers," not played at the symphony since 1980. Cleanly executed, Järvi's view had not a little melodrama.

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