Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2; Beethoven: Symphony No. 7

Vienna Symphony Orchestra/ Luisi

Avery Fisher Hall, New York, 19 November 2011 3.5 stars

Vienna Symphony Orchestra About a month ago, there was good news and bad news emanating from Lincoln Center, and it was the same news. The Vienna Symphony had abandoned its plan to perform the Symphony No. 4 of Franz Schmidt and replaced it with the immortal and beloved 7th of Beethoven. Much as I wished to hear live the most ambitious and passionate orchestral opus of the cellist who carried on a love-hate relationship with his principal conductor Gustav Mahler and then followed the same pattern with fellow composer Arnold Schoenberg, it was even more devoutly to be wished to experience a modern reading of the Beethoven by a large orchestra, since John Eliot Gardiner would be leading the same piece in just three days with his period ensemble at Carnegie Hall. I decided to attend both, with the contrasting sounds fresh in my ear.

This concert was originally scheduled long before conductor Fabio Luisi was anointed the permanent replacement for the now sadly frail James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera. With his new responsibilities elevating him from understudy to heir apparent, everything that Maestro Luisi does these days is heavily scrutinized in New York.

Several pianists in town had recommended a young artist named Lisa de la Salle and I finally caught her act this weekend. Unfortunately, none of those particular pianists were in the audience on Sunday to discuss their shared penchant for her playing abilities. For the first fifteen minutes of the Rach 2, I guessed that she was doing quite well, this estimation based on the sketchy information presented as Maestro Luisi and his 100 piece ensemble completely drowned out De la Salle in many passages, leaving us poor reviewers with no empirical data save for our observing her fingering positions. By movement's middle this imbalance had been somewhat corrected, but the entire experience had been a rather pugilistic one.

Sadly, matters took a decided turn for the worse. In the normally beautiful Adagio sostenuto the principal horn botched his solo and that magical transition from flute to clarinet in the melody was cheapened when the clarinet decided to pause for just an instant before coming in off-beat. It must have been rather difficult to listen to this work in, say, the early 1950's with the memories of both the film Brief Encounter and the popular song Full Moon and Empty Arms fresh in the culture, but by now we can begin to listen to these passages again without any additional baggage.

De la Salle did not have a solid outing. In the second movement she played an entire phrase from one of the more familiar melodic sections several measures before it was due up to bat and then had no choice but to launch its reprise just moments later. At some point, she lost her concentration altogether, simply making up music in the proper key (actually this evoked in this listener very pleasant memories of Rubinstein who used the same improvisational technique when his memory failed). I will pencil her in again for future evaluation.

At the conclusion of the first movement of the Rachmaninoff there was a long and embarrassing round of applause and this may have been the inspiration for Luisi to eliminate the synapse of silence between movements one and two of the Beethoven. This was a marvelous performance with the conductor favoring the glacially slow tempo in the Allegretto ala Karajan, putting an exclamation mark on his rejection of period practice. In our topsy-turvy world, "modern" performances tend to evoke the small orchestra, brisk tempo era of Beethoven while "old-fashioned" efforts are more reminiscent of the golden age of Beethovenian communication from the 1920's through 1950's. On Wednesday it will be Sir John making his case; for today Maestro Luisi presented a very strong argument.

The Vienna Symphony (please remember that they are not associated in any way with the Vienna Philharmonic) has improved quite a bit in overall orchestral sound over the past ten years or so and individual performances this day were striking. The horns handled those impossible high notes at the end of the opening Vivace masterfully, the lower strings pushing propulsion inexorably and excitingly throughout. This was a thoroughly thrilling performance and some of the ragged sound of the not quite perfect and polished ensemble only served to remind of what Jupiter Symphony conductor Jens Nygaard used to call "Beethoven's muddy boots". The final movement was characterized by sheer excitement and remarkable precision. One might even venture to state that the touted Vienna Philharmonic, with their hothouse nurtured delicate tone, could never play the master this way. There is something to be said for being number 2.

By Fred Kirshnit

Photo Credit: Bubu Dujmic; Lukas Beck.


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