“The key is to allow yourself to experience the music,” conductor Paavo Järvi said in his pre-recorded notes, shown before Friday’s Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra concert.
Indeed, that was the best way to listen, because nothing was predictable about Friday’s program. It opened with a beautifully etched, late-romantic piece, “Slow Movement,” by Webern and continued with a highly individual interpretation of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 by Romanian piano legend Radu Lupu.
Then there was Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2, an early work with the quirky hallmark of frequent rests separating its phrases. A symphony of “heavenly length,” it was pared down from 66 minutes, the duration of orchestra’s last performance in 1985, to about an hour in a newer Carragan edition, which the orchestra played for the first time.
Bruckner was a deeply religious Austrian whose nine symphonies continue the thread of Beethoven’s Ninth. There is something radiant and spiritual about his Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, but it is also an enigma. There were climactic drumrolls and pointed brass fanfares, which suddenly dropped down to nothing, full-blown strings playing long themes which unexpectedly ground to a halt.
Somehow Järvi managed to make it hang together for a performance that was both refined and powerful.
His view from the outset was one of classical clarity, with lean textures, clear counterpoint and subtlety of expression. For the listener, there were glowing sonorities punctuated with moments of grandeur. You could revel in the atmosphere of the Andante, which featured a beautiful horn solo over pizzicato strings (Thomas Sherwood). The scherzo was earthy and power, contrasted with a trio of mystery and color.
The finale alternated between brilliant, blazing brass and moments of the most sublime atmosphere in the strings. The musicians turned in a polished reading.
Lupu, who performed in the first half, is known for winning the Van Cliburn and Leeds piano competitions early in his career. His view of Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 in G Major was more about color and sonority than is often heard by today’s pianists. He stretched passages, illuminated inner notes and used the pedal liberally. His first movement cadenza had rumbles of thunder in the bass.
The slow movement, which is operatic in quality to begin with, had a power all its own. It was deeply interior, and Lupu made every note count.
The finale was uneven, and, despite its atmosphere and drama, I would have preferred a quicker tempo. His ideas were sometimes at the expense of precision, but it made one rethink Beethoven. In the end, it was a refreshing change.
The orchestra provided terrific color of its own in the tutti passages.
The evening opened with Webern’s “Langsamer Satz,” originally the slow movement of a string quartet, scored for string orchestra. Its flowing melodies reminded one of Mahler, and Järvi’s romantic approach gave it a touching beauty.