La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

NACO: Great Beethoven symphony, not so great piano concerto

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

It’s hard not to get a standing ovation when you play a piece like Beethoven’s Emperor piano concerto — one of the most well-known and best-loved works in the piano literature. The music itself is astounding whether or not a listener hears it for the first time or the 100th time.

So not surprisingly, an enthusiastic crowd jumped to its feet at Roy Thomson Hall Feb. 5, following a heroic but mediocre performance of the Emperor by pianist Jonathan Biss and the National Arts Centre Orchestra led by Pinchas Zukerman.

The problem with the Biss-Zukerman performance began with what can only be described as not being able to play together. Biss, the 30-year-old American who showed great gusto and seriousness at the keyboard, failed to follow Zukerman’s lead and missed just about all of the dramatic chords that are the pillars of this concerto, rushing in early each time before the orchestra.

From there, the incoordination on stage was so painfully sloppy the rest of the performance came across as being uncharacteristic and run-of-the-mill. A few times conductor and soloist were able to find common ground and make the music breath — the slow second movement had some nice moments of arresting nuances — but for the most part it was as if Biss was a young, energetic pup headed for greatness but instead crashed and burned because his elder and wiser partner couldn’t or didn’t manage to keep him at bay.

That being said, there is no doubt Biss is a technically gifted player with huge potential and possibility ahead of him.

The special concert with the NACO opened with Canadian composer Peter Paul Koprowski’s (1947-) In Memoriam Karol Szymanowski, a piece Koprowski wrote when he was just 16 years old to protest against the communist regime of his Polish homeland. Zukerman and the NACO gave a superb reading of the score, creating a landscape that moved from being eerie, chilling and frightening to at last peaceful and resting.

Just before intermission, the orchestra delivered a boisterous and fun performance of one of Beethoven’s earlier works, his second symphony in D major. Zukerman, who conducted this symphony from memory, showed off his orchestra’s extroverted nature by letting the players be who they are and have fun on stage. The balance was right, the precision was there and the music flowed naturally as it should.

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