Surrounding Beethoven

Whenever a Beethoven piano concerto with a prominent soloist appears on an orchestral program, it is likely to be the highlight of the evening. Yet concert protocol dictates that something more traditionally “substantial,” like a symphony, has to come last, with the piano concerto appearing before the intermission. And because the concerto is likely to be shorter than the symphony, something short generally has to be added up front to pad out the pre-intermission period.

In the past few days, the San Francisco Symphony and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra handled this situation in two different ways, both persuasive. For conductor Edwin Outwater and the San Francisco musicians, the solution was to go entirely with Beethoven. Thus Orion Weiss’s performance of the Fifth Piano Concerto was bracketed by the rarely heard Overture to King Stephen (one of Beethoven’s pieces of incidental music for the stage) and, at the back end, the always-thrilling Seventh Symphony. This was a sage if safe choice. Edward Gardner, conducting the Mostly Mozart orchestra at Lincoln Center, opted for a more adventurous approach, starting his program with a snippet of Mozart (the Masonic Funeral Music in C Minor, a beautiful thing I’d never heard live before) and ending with Schubert’s Fifth Symphony. This set up the Fourth Piano Concerto, performed by Jeremy Denk, as the clear jewel in the crown, while also extending our sense of how closely Beethoven’s work was connected with that of his eminent forerunners and followers—a connection that was duly cemented when Denk performed the lovely slow movement to Mozart’s K545 sonata as his encore.

Comparing great piano soloists is as much of a mug’s game as comparing great Beethoven concertos: it’s the proverbial apples and oranges, with distinct virtues and risks in each case. (And the virtues wouldn’t be so commendable, of course, if the high-wire risks of these performances weren’t so very much in evidence.) But someone has to be the mug, so I will volunteer.

Orion Weiss’s solo in the Fifth Concerto, which I heard last Thursday night, was an exemplary exercise in intensity. The piano and the huge orchestra seemed to be fully equal partners, as the individual player held his own against the vast group. There was perfect coordination between their two parts, but the deep communion—the sense of intimate accord—was between the pianist and his instrument. Moving his lips in a constant silent exhortation as he played, Weiss seemed to be crooning privately to the piano, urging it on to greater and greater accomplishments as he hunched over the keyboard. When he fell silent and the orchestra took up its role, he relaxed into a seemingly passive state, and then, when it was his turn again, he came back to life in a thrillingly demonic fashion.

In Denk’s case, on the other hand, the entire concerto, both the orchestral and the piano parts, seemed to be emanating from his body. In his non-playing moments, he watched Gardner attentively, occasionally twitching his shoulders or his head in sync with the orchestra’s most emphatic notes, remaining alive and attentive to every turn in the music. And when he played, he made it look almost easy: even though we could see and hear how complicated the solo passages were, Denk’s own relaxed and companionable relation to the piano transmitted itself to us. His rhythms and dynamics were much more eccentric and variable than Weiss’s, and this too suited the performance, for the Fourth Concerto is not so much a meeting of equal partners as an orchestral piece into which some kind of miraculous beast has been introduced—a winged horse, say, descending onto a racetrack of normal thoroughbreds. Jeremy Denk’s Pegasus was a wonder to behold, and I am exceedingly grateful to have been there on Saturday night to witness it.

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