Sunday December 5, 2010
Chopin's Piano Concerto: Orchestra London; Masterworks Series
by Brian Hay
The first works on the program were the 'Three Pieces for String Orchestra in the Olden Style' by Henrik Gorécki. These pieces, stemming from the middle of the twentieth century as opposed to the nineteenth, have their melodic base shaped by techniques common to twentieth century composition but unheard of through much of the previous one. (The twelve note row that Liszt used to open the 'Faust Symphony' in the late 1850's is a notable exception). Under the Baton of Conductor Gregorz Nowak the players of Orchestra London their chromatic passages became a rich tapestry of varied tones. The aleatoric (random) elements that injected moments of more traditional harmony into the pieces were rendered with a flourish.
The Concertos for Piano and Orchestra by Chopin have a reputation for being long on piano and short on Concerto (in the words of composer Jan Swafford) and the first Concerto (which is actually the second—is anybody confused yet) more than lives up to the description. The soloist and orchestra never really form a dialogue that sounds like an exchange of ideas with the result being that one always seems to be following the other.
But what a beautiful way of following it is! The passages that Chopin gave to the orchestra (though dull to play according to Jeffrey Wall) sound magnificent to the ears of the listener. Wave upon wave of lush expression swept through the hall when the orchestra played the densely layered passages of the work. The more subtle accompaniments were played with great delicacy. One of these that comes to mind is the segments Chopin chose to have the keyboard backed by a bassoon. The tone colours produced by this combination were strikingly beautiful.
Fifteen year old Jan Lisiecki has breathtaking technique and artistic expression that belies his youth. He combines power and grace effortlessly. His work on the concerto captured the beauty of the soloists part beautifully. Emotions poured from the keys in waves only to be pulled back and transformed into gentle caresses where the tiniest notes were allowed to sing. As encore he performed the 'Nocturne in C Sharp Minor'. Where the Concerto displayed the grandiose side of Chopin this tiny piece emphasized the intimacy he's known for. It was a perfect way to close the first half.
The final work on the program was the Third Symphony by Tchaikovsky which is also known as the 'Polish' Symphony. According to Jeff Wall it has nothing to do with Poland and was only named that way after Piet shuffled off his mortal coil. Wall didn't say this verbatim but that nickname probably has Tchaikovsky tossing around in his grave each time a concert programmer uses it. It shouldn't though. It gives people yet another reason (excuse) to add it to their programs, even when the theme of a program centres around all things musically Polish.
It's a thrilling piece of work to hear live. All of the musical variety one could realistically hope to find within one piece is given a bit of life here. The opening and closing movements carry (for myself anyway) a feel that reflects either Nationalism, or perhaps a march of some kind. Those movements contained far more than just that though. The opening of the first one was subdued and very unsettling before it unfolded into the anthem like passages that the orchestra brought forth in rolling waves. The second movement was a lovely pastoral that the musicians executed as if they were great sweeps of a brush filling in the details of a lush and beautiful meadow. The third was a graceful elegy performed with lyricism that was poetic. The quirky scherzo provided some of the great delights the work has to offer with the horns that kept popping out of thin air. The brass players seemed to be having fun with those. The finale presented Tchaikovsky at his most exuberant. When everything came together in the final passages the result was as thrilling as anything that can be had in music.
Of all the Conductors I've seen work with this orchestra Gregorz Nowak's is the style that seems the most like a painter working with a canvas. He presents music in such a way as seems like it's unfolding as layers of broad strokes from a series of brushes. Punctuation and dynamics unique to a passage are specifically suited to the stroke employed. Larger strokes from even larger brushes tie the pieces together as a whole. It works beautifully.
I'd love to hear what he'd do with Beethoven's Sixth Symphony.
This performance took place on Saturday December 4, 2010 at Centennial Hall in London, Ontario.
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Pianist Jan Lisiecki
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