La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Flawless Touch & Temperament: Ohlsson Triumphs in Dvorak Rarity!



Classical Travels with Paul E. Robinson
THIS WEEK IN TEXAS

There is nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a great piano virtuoso in action with a big orchestra. Hands a blur at the keyboard, showers of notes played at blinding speed, the Steinway grand all but demolished under the onslaught while the conductor whips the orchestra into a frenzy. Wonderful!

Most of the great virtuoso vehicles – by Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov - were composed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and have been exciting audiences ever since. There are, however, other piano concertos from this period that are less flashy, but well worth a hearing. Dvořák’s piano concerto of 1876 is just such a piece. I have had a special affection for this fine work for many years and I was delighted that pianist Garrick Ohlsson and conductor Peter Bay decided to present it this season with the Austin Symphony at the Long Center.

Ohlsson Brings Flawless Touch & Temperament to Rare Masterpiece
As a young man, Ohlsson won the prestigious Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1970. He went on to establish himself as one of the foremost Chopin players of his generation. With this kind of musical pedigree, he was just the man to do justice to Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33.

Op. 33 is a piece for consummate musicians. It calls for beauty of sound and the most natural sense of rubato. In other words, it is Chopinesque in its piano writing. Any pianist who approaches it with hammer and tongs will make a hash of it, and might better leave it alone. There is drama in the score, and deep romantic temperament; but again, its special beauty is apt to be destroyed if the passion is overdone.

One of the great moments for me is the opening of the slow movement – a solo horn with soft string accompaniment, playing a haunting melody then picked up by the piano. Nothing much to it, except the totally unexpected B major chord that intrudes in the key of D major. It reminds me also of the inspired harmonic chemistry to be found in the great soprano aria “O silver moon” from Dvořák’s opera Rusalka. The piano concerto has several moments of this quality, and if you like Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, you’ll find more of the same here, especially in the last movement.

Ohlsson gave one of the finest performances I ever expect to hear of this lovely work and Peter Bay and the ASO provided stellar accompaniment. At the height of the applause came a special treat – as an encore - Chopin’s familiar Grand Valse Brillante, played by Ohlsson with such effortless mastery that one hoped it would never end.


Dell Hall Sound Fails Conductor & Orchestra in Epic Rachmaninov!
The major orchestral offering of the evening, Rachmaninov’s epic Symphony No. 2, (1907), came after intermission. Interestingly, Dvořák and Rachmaninov were close to the same age – Dvořák was 36 and Rachmaninov 34 – when they wrote these two pieces; in short, they were both young men but well-established as important composers.

In the case of Rachmaninov, his first symphony was received so badly that it practically ended his career. The Second Symphony, however, was another matter. It is full of soaring melody, and structurally it hangs together far better than the First Symphony. It is, nonetheless, a massive, sprawling score and much of the music is dark and melancholy. Unlike the Dvořák Piano Concerto, it calls for a large orchestra and the biggest possible sound.


Unfortunately, while Peter Bay had added a few extra double basses and had the full complement of brass and percussion that the score requires, the Michael and Susan Dell Hall at the Long Center simply refused to cooperate.

Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 requires a depth of sound that sets the floor shaking and gives you the feeling of being punched in the gut. Nothing like that sound reached me in my seat about two-thirds of the way back on the ground floor. I don’t doubt for a moment that the ASO is capable of producing a full rich sound, but I am concerned that we may never hear it in this hall.

It so happens that the very next night I was sitting in a similar location in the Myerson Symphony Center in Dallas. The orchestral sound I heard there was exactly what was missing in Austin. It wasn’t the fault of the conductor or the orchestra in Austin; it was the hall. The Myerson happens to be one of the world’s great concert halls and what a difference it makes to the sound of an orchestra and to the sound of the music.

Let me emphasize that Peter Bay and the ASO musicians had obviously worked hard to get this difficult music under control and the hard work paid off. This was an extremely well-organized and well-executed performance. There was fine playing from principal clarinet and horn, and the trumpets threw off their brilliant flourishes in the last movement with great panache. Even the best performance, however, suffers when given on a poor instrument, and the Dell Hall may just be such an instrument. Let us hope not.

Finding the Right Mix No Easy Matter
It might be worthwhile for Bay and the ASO – if they have not already done so - to experiment with different orchestral seating arrangements, various types of risers and baffles, or moving at least some of the musicians out in front of the proscenium to see if any of these changes improve the sound.

There is another way of looking at the problem. The ASO might think about what repertoire avoids the hall’s deficiencies, and instead plays to its strengths. In my experience, the hall does not deal well with big, romantic repertoire. There is not enough resonance and not enough of the sound projects into the hall. On the other hand, the hall is generally flattering to soft music and to music with a lighter texture. Mozart symphonies and concertos, for example, might work very well.

Unfortunately, the heart of the repertoire and the music that appeals to a wider audience is – you guessed it – the big, romantic stuff.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar; Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, and Stokowski (Spring 2009), all available at http://www.amazon.com) For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website.



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