Sunday, January 30, 2011

Watts, CSO deliver elegant Beethoven
By Janelle Gelfand
January 29, 2011

Whenever André Watts is in town, it's a special occasion - and a reminder of the depth of artistry that this pianist can bring to Beethoven.
He delivered a memorable reading of Beethoven's Concerto No. 4, with Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on Friday morning in Music Hall. Järvi's program framed the concerto with two French works: Debussy's early "Printemps" and Fauré's Requiem, with two fine soloists and the May Festival Chorus.

And included in the substantial offerings was the first of five newly commissioned fanfares, hailing Järvi's 10th season as music director and WGUC's 50th anniversary.

Watts, 64, has enjoyed a celebrated career for nearly five decades since his debut at age 16 with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in 1963. Since 2004, he has juggled teaching with concertizing, as a faculty member on a growing celebrity list at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music.

Watts projects an aristocratic style at the keyboard. But on Friday, his playing also had a deeply introspective quality that set it apart. His performance was about substance and beauty, with flashes of brilliance.

Perhaps some of that had to do with Beethoven's Concerto in G Major, in which the movements seem to echo the composer's mood swings. In the first movement, the pianist's runs rippled with a featherweight touch, while he seamlessly soared through majestic climaxes with weight and power.

Watts phrased broadly, taking his time while he summoned a palette of color, often with judicious help from the pedal. The first-movement cadenza was not only a brilliant feat, and every note had meaning. It made the final surge of cascading runs all the more beautiful.

The slow movement was hymn-like and lyrical, and his measured pacing and introspective quality set a melancholic mood. The finale arrived like a ray of sunshine, with Watts providing vivid contrasts and occasionally adding an element of surprise.

Järvi and the orchestra made excellent partners. Of note was cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn's fleet playing with the pianist in the finale.

In the concert's second half, the May Festival Chorus and soloists Laura Claycomb and Stephen Powell joined Järvi for the orchestra's first subscription performance of Fauré's Requiem. Unlike massive settings of the Requiem, the French composer's Requiem is a radiant, more intimate statement of faith. Some of its striking timbre comes from the instrumentation, including harp (Gillian Benet Sella) and organ (Heather MacPhail).

The chorus, prepared by Robert Porco, performed with refinement, nuanced phrasing and fine enunciation of the Latin text. A cappella moments were beautifully intoned, with fine pitch control.

Järvi, who won a Grammy Award for a choral album, led with flowing tempos, illuminated details and captured the arc of the music. Attentive to balance, he brought out the dark timbre of the Kyrie, richly underscoring the voices with dark strings. The Sanctus was buoyant but also warm, with well-executed horn calls punctuating the "Hosannas." And the shimmering "In Paradisum," with the sopranos as angels, was a moving finale.

The soloists offered memorable moments, too. Claycomb projected a lyric voice in the famous "Pie Jesu," and Powell, who will sing the title role in Cincinnati Opera's "Rigoletto" this summer, put his warmly expressive baritone to work in the "Libera me."

In the first half, Debussy's "Printemps," in two movements, was a gem of a piece that included the sound of piano-four-hands. Although momentum sagged a bit at times, the piece offered moments in the sun for orchestral soloists, including principal violist Christian Colberg.

The morning opened with Jonathan Holland's jazz-inspired fanfare, "The Party Starter." With syncopated licks in the brass, long themes for the strings, two snare drums and jazzy chords in the piano, it was a short and sweet crowd-pleaser. Holland, associate professor at Boston's Berklee College of Music, took a bow.

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