Saturday, November 14, 2015

Taking Brahms' Second Piano Concerto in stride: Dejan Lazic and the ISO drop the other shoe

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra patrons rarely get a chance to hear the same soloist in closely related repertoire two weeks in the row.

The last two weekends of programs at Hilbert Circle Theatre have been an exception, in which music
Dejan Lazic: More masterful than masterly.
director Krzysztof Urbanski and guest soloist Dejan Lazic could confirm their affinity in the two piano concertos of Johannes Brahms — a rapport already honed by a precedent collaboration they undertook with Urbanski's other orchestra, in Trondheim, Norway.

Evidence that conductor and soloist share similar thoughts on this music and can meld them smoothly in performance was clear last week. My mixed response last week to Lazic's interpretation of the D minor concerto (No. 1) continued Friday night as he and the orchestra played Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major.

This much different work  — mellower yet still substantial — has had more than a few concert pianists declaring that it is a harder test for the soloist than the Rachmaninoff Third, which had its formidable reputation boosted in the public mind by the overwrought 1996 movie "Shine." The Brahms Second requires extraordinary stamina, both mental and physical, over four movements and 50 minutes.

Lazic had resources to burn in the work. He never seemed fatigued, slapdash or offhand at any point. Nonetheless, he poured into his interpretation some outsize dynamic contrasts that, at the loud end, sometimes misrepresented the music. It's certainly possible to traverse a loud plateau without littering the landscape with accents, as Lazic did.

There are detached sixteenth-note figures in the first-movement development, for example, with the indication "ben marcato" (well marked, strongly accented), but they are rarer in the score than they were in Lazic's performance. The shopworn description of this concerto as "a symphony with piano obbligato" would have been strangled in its cradle if soloists had always exhibited the kind of command he did on Friday. But his approach did not reflect the music's character at many points.

An exception was the blissful third movement, where Lazic's meeting of the minds with Urbanski was confirmed by the lovely account of the prominent cello solo by Austin Huntington, in his first showcase as the section's new principal. Subdued moods are not beyond Lazic, certainly, but it was abundantly clear elsewhere in this piece that he prefers stoking fires to banking them. I believe my first exposure to his concerto playing was in Liszt's "Totentanz," upon which he put his stamp appropriately in February 2014. He is essentially a "Totentanz" sort of pianist, more in his element there than in Brahms.

"Winged Victory" at the Louvre.
Before intermission, concertgoers got plenty of exposure to the sight of the second violins being seated where the firsts usually are.  Zach De Pue came out to cue the tuning, then took his place where principal second violin Konstantin Umansky usually sits, with the firsts arrayed behind the concertmaster.

The switch seemed obviously governed by the conductor's concept of the program's other work, Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in B minor ("Unfinished"). With so many dark string sonorities in this two-movement piece, I'm guessing he wanted a thoroughgoing effect of the work's being built from the bottom up.

The performance reflected the piece's deep-grained solidity, its Olympian serenity amid the stresses of living. Its lighter moments were always set in a brooding context, a de profundis cry — controlled and complete over what would conventionally be just half a symphony.

I thought of other ostensibly incomplete art works that oddly strike us as sufficient the way they've come down to us. One is the Nike of Samothrace, often called "Winged Victory," a long-headless Hellenistic sculpture from the second century B.C. Like Schubert's "Unfinished," what we have is beautifully detailed, the feeling of a robed figure rushing into wind almost palpable, even in two dimensions. In its three-dimensional reality, it is as breathtaking as the B minor symphony, the way I saw it a half-century ago in its home at the Louvre. It's a symbol of the enduring triumph of the civilization it represents, despite yesterday's threats to the city the world-famous museum calls home.

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