Saturday, January 24, 2009

CONCERT REVIEW: CSO, Lupu-Beethoven Piano concerto 4

January 24, 2009

A Love Song, An Aristocrat and Music for Meditation at the CSO

Mary Ellyn Hutton

Cincinnati Symphony audiences can take orders.  At least they did at Friday night’s Webern/Beethoven/Bruckner concert at Music Hall.
   In his “First Notes” comments, screened before each of his performances, music director Paavo Järvi related how he feels just before he walks onstage to conduct Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.   He worries, he said, about “audience noise” and how an ill-timed cough might “ruin” the Concerto’s “soft poetic opening.”
   Not so Friday night.  It seemed that a collective breath was held as guest artist Radu Lupu sounded the gentle opening bars. Similarly, Järvi invited listeners to “become part of the journey” in Bruckner’s 70-minute Second Symphony and let the music “do its work.”  (Tongue-in-cheek, perhaps, he described Bruckner’s symphonies as “a perfect form of meditation,” a not inaccurate metaphor, since openness and clearing of the mind do give them a transformative power.)  This advice was heeded, too, by his listeners.  Response to the performance was enthusiastic, though without the automatic standing ovation, a gesture that has come to mean little in any case.
   Interestingly, there were many students in the audience, representatives of a dozen or so regional colleges and universities attending the CSO’s second “College Nite” of the season.  The assumption that young people’s pop-oriented attention spans are necessarily shorter than their elders’ is no doubt over-exaggerated.  In fact, they may have fewer preconceptions about what to like (or not) in classical music. 
   The concert began with a commitment of only seven minutes, Anton Webern’s “Langsamer Satz” (“Slow Movement”).  The 1905 work, originally for string quartet, was performed with acumen and tonal beauty by the full CSO string section (delicious violas).  A kind of love poem for the 21-year-old composer’s future wife, the music is lush and romantic, with deep echoes of Mahler.  The little sigh at the end found audible echoes out in the hall.
   Radu Lupu owns a magisterial skill and presence perhaps unmatched among today’s pianists.  His performance of Beethoven’s well-loved Fourth Piano Concerto was marked by purity and perfection unsullied by any hint of grandiosity.  The strings followed his opening statement with a soft, gauzy sound that carried the spell forward splendidly, and collaboration with Järvi and the CSO was excellent throughout.  The Andante, a dialogue between piano and orchestra, was vividly rendered, the orchestra’s bold, challenging statements answered softly and gently by Lupu.  The Rondo finale had a rollicking sense of fun, all with perfect deportment, set off by the exhilarating, presto conclusion.
   Less popular than his later symphonies, Bruckner’s Second is nevertheless overflowing with beauty and should be heard more often.  The performance was the CSO premiere of the new edition (1997) by Bruckner scholar William Carragan, now accepted as codifying the composer’s final thoughts on the work.
   Completed when Bruckner was 53, it is classically conceived, but filled with the distinctive mannerisms and traits that would blossom fully in his later symphonies (three-against-two rhythmic juxtapositions, prominent brass coloration, block-like structures, etc.).  There is a wonderful Scherzo, one of Bruckner’s cosmic rattlers that contrasts a hammer-like Scherzo proper against a gracious, mild-mannered Trio and for good measure, a really hammered conclusion (Coda) where the timpanist is called upon to play triple forte.  This sudden shock was ably administered by principal timpanist Patrick Schleker. 
    Most magical was the slow movement (Andante), a complex, melodic effusion which featured one of the heroes of the evening, associate principal French hornist Thomas Sherwood.  Historically, the horn part in this movement was considered so difficult that the final bars were re-scored for clarinet.   No problem for Sherwood, who handled the treacherous arpeggios which end the movement with pinpoint accuracy and a mellow, golden tone.
   The Finale was an opportunity to drench yourself in the composer, from the soft, tip-toe-like opening to the pell-mell, abrupt conclusion with its tattoo-like rhythms in winds and brasses.  The “pauses” (rests) for which the symphony earned its nickname “Pausensymphonie” seemed less evident in this new Carragan edition than in earlier ones, but were given clear demarcation by Järvi.
   Special mention should be made of the woodwinds who made stellar contributions throughout the entire Symphony, including bassoonists William Winstead and Hugh Michie, who had some occasionally quirky solo turns.
   Repeat is 8 p.m. Saturday (Jan. 24) at Music Hall.   Note: Järvi and the CSO will perform at Carnegie Hall in February, 2010, their first Carnegie appearance since 2005, with Lupu as guest artist in Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3.  

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