Sunday, February 20, 2011

Toradze, Järvi Shine with CSO

Music in Cincinnati
by Mary Ellyn Hutton
February 18, 2011

Meet David, who can turn a battleship on a dime.
With apologies for the mixed metaphor, “David” refers to Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra music director Paavo Järvi, who led the CSO in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony Friday morning at Music Hall.

That’s David as in “David and Goliath,” to whom Järvi was compared by German critic Bernhard Hartmann of General-Anzeiger Bonn for his Beethoven symphony cycle with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. (In his review, “Goliath” is a well known conductor who has also recorded a Beethoven cycle, but with less excitement and authenticity than Järvi, Hartmann said.)

The “battleship” -- nothing pejorative intended -- is the CSO, which numbered more than twice as many strings as the Kammerphilharmonie (60 to 28) for its Beethoven’s Fifth Friday morning. Nevertheless, having heard both versions, this listener found the CSO performance to be even more exciting than Järvi’s with the German chamber orchestra and darn near as ensemble-perfect.

Järvi -- who could (and probably does) conduct Beethoven in his sleep -- led with unparalleled energy and verve, drawing a performance from the CSO with exactitude, complete musicality and sonic splendor. (If you want to hear what you will miss when Järvi leaves the orchestra in May don’t miss this concert.)

That said, the concert was a world class event in another way as well, with pianist Alexander Toradze guest artist in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Not only does Toradze play like a god, but the collaboration with Järvi and the CSO was simply spectacular. Rarely does one find a soloist and conductor so keenly attuned to the same wave length. Perhaps it’s their East European heritage (Toradze is Georgian) or their long-time friendship. (Their parents were friends, too, said Järvi in the Prelude video screened before the concert.)

Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto is the product of a 22-year-old rebel (Prokofiev) who, like Toradze, could play a mean piano. It bristles with technical demands – it was fun to watch Toradze wiggle his fingers in preparation for the blistering Scherzo. There is plenty of the composer’s trademark irony, too, which Järvi gleefully accentuated in the orchestral accompaniment.

The concerto, which was received with hostility when Prokofiev premiered it in Russia, begins gently, almost impressionistically, before settling into a lyrical melody. Then, lo and behold, a gargantuan cadenza swallows everything up. Through it all, Toradze displayed ravishing, well-defined tone colors and superhuman technique. The ending, coming out of the cadenza, was marvelously calibrated by soloist and conductor.

Toradze seemed to leave no crack or crevice on the keyboard untouched in the Scherzo, which gave way to big “Russian” sounds in the Intermezzo. Toradze pounced like a cat on the keys to the CSO’s swaggering, sometimes snide accompaniment (check out the woodwind choir). The finale was a beauty, with its ostinato theme, ever-shifting tone colors and brief, more relaxed cadenza. The run-up to the end (coda) began as a mad scramble after a soft, slow, “marking time” approach which gave it incredible momentum. Visibly moved, Toradze jumped from his seat at the end to embrace Järvi repeatedly and blow kisses to the orchestra.

Beethoven threatened to be an anti-climax after the Prokofiev, but it wasn’t. With hardly a pause after bowing to the audience, Järvi cued the famous motto opening and proceeded to raise a clamor throughout the hall. This was Beethoven with muscle -- even violence -- brisk, pulse-racing and precise.

The Andante was eloquent and song-like, with solid bass support. The scherzo grew absolutely brawny before sinking to near inaudibility as the finale approached. When it did, it broke over the hall majestically, Järvi tossing out cues with relish and almost dancing on the podium from time to time as the symphony built to its triumphant conclusion. In summary, it was a rare performance by an ensemble truly energized and inspired by its leader, with everyone sharing in the sheer joy of making music. The musicians rewarded Järvi with a solo bow (i.e. refusing to stand to acknowledge the applause).

The concert opened with a colorful performance of Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz” No. 1 ("Dance in the Village Inn"). Principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn’s solos were satin smooth, and the work as a whole had a mischievous, but magical feel.

Repeats are 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 18 and 19). Tickets (scarce for Saturday) begin at $10. Call (513) 381-3300 or order online at The newly-commissioned portrait of Järvi by Carin Hebenstreit will be on display in the lobby through Sunday.

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