Tuesday, January 22, 2008

CONCERT REVIEW: CSO: Brilliant “Pictures"

January 18, 2008

The Cincinnati Enquirer

By Janelle Gelfand

If you do nothing else this season, go hear the
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra play Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” in Music Hall.
It’s in the classical top 40. But the performance led by Paavo Järvi on Thursday in Music Hall stands out for its electrifying contrasts and sheer spontaneity, from the edgy gnome of “Gnomus” to “The Great Gate of Kiev,” ablaze with gongs and chimes. “Pictures at an Exhibition,” orchestrated by Maurice Ravel, capped a program of mostly Ravel. A crowd-pleaser from start to finish, the program opened with Ravel’s charming “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” and included the Concerto for Left Hand with French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Video: Thibaudet discusses tackling Ravel's Piano Concerto for Left Hand
Mussorgsky’s “Pictures” began life as a piano suite, inspired by the art of Victor Hartmann, a friend of the composer. The work depicts a stroll through a gallery, and each piece is a miniature tone picture. With help from Ravel’s brilliant orchestration, Järvi illuminated the details of each “picture” in living color. The opening “Promenade” bristled with energy; “The Old Castle” had a mystical flavor, as the haunting sound of James Bunte’s saxophone died away after the orchestral cutoff.It was a performance of exhilarating contrasts and sharp characterizations, and the orchestra performed it superbly. “Tuileries” was mercurial and light; “Catacombs,” with its spacious brass choirs, had an atmosphere of depth, power and sinister imagery. I’ve never heard such a hair-raising Baba Yaga, the witch of Russian folklore in “The Little Hut on Chicken’s Legs.” Järvi’s pacing led naturally to the majestic “The Great Gate of Kiev,” with full-blooded, brilliant brass and great intensity in the strings.The evening’s piano soloist offered brilliance of a different kind. Ravel composed his Concerto in D Major for Left Hand for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. In one long expanse, it is an endurance test of the pianist, who is put through feats of keyboard-spanning trials, while playing melody and accompaniment with one hand alone.Thibaudet is a pianist of immense finesse and glittering, effortless technique. His control of color and melodic line while navigating knuckle-breaking cascades was indeed impressive, although at times his sound grew steely and he had a tendency to push the tempo. Nevertheless, it was a tour-de-force. It was in the lyrical passages where we had a taste of his truly beautiful touch and sound that is so uniquely French. Järvi opened the program with an irresistible performance of Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” Again written first for piano, it is a suite of miniatures. Its modal harmonies and old dance forms give it an antique air. In contrast to the brilliance that came later, this was all about subtlety and lightness. The Prelude was scintillating and clean, like a fleeting moment of sun captured in an instant. The Menuet had a nostalgic air, and the Rigaudon began briskly, with gestures played in broad flourishes. Principal oboist Dwight Parry phrased his solos memorably.

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