Saturday, February 24, 2018

Strong stuff from the ISO: Major Elgar and Beethoven

All these years of reviewing concerts, and I've barely paused to consider how much my impression of
Nikolaj Znaider brings a violinist's suavity to conducting.
a work as performed may be influenced by its program-mates.

For instance, I can't claim to remember in detail what I thought of Raymond Leppard's interpretation of Edward Elgar's Symphony No. 2 in E-flat. November of 1989 was the last time the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra played the piece until this weekend. The printed review I've saved jogs my memory, but consider this: On the same program was Henryk Wieniawski's second violin concerto and Franz von Suppe's Overture to "Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna." Both are in some degrees substantial, but lean toward the lighter side of the repertoire.

This time around, with guest conductor Nikolaj Znaider on the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium, the weighty symphony rubbed shoulders with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat ("Emperor").  The effect was to impress me with the lighter, more intimate sides of the Elgar, even though nearly 29 years ago I credited Leppard with finding the charm and tenderness in the work.

Znaider took those qualities to an exalted level. And here it's probably best to drop attempts at comparison. Let it suffice to say that a more emotionally stirring account of Elgar Two is barely conceivable. The shaping of phrases was particularly adept, and tempo fluctuations were always well managed. The work is stuffed with grand gestures, but it also speaks in a ruminative voice.

Also active as a violinist, on Friday night here Znaider evinced abilities as a conductor that could
tempt one to generalize about the particular advantages string players bring to conducting. Compared to pianist-conductors, those trained in violin, viola, cello or double bass (the venerated Serge Koussevitsky's instrument) tend to display a knack for suppleness in dynamics and tempo on the podium. Pianists may be better when it comes to clarifying structure.

But the broad brush shouldn't be too readily applied. In the last movement of the Elgar, for instance, Znaider drew from the orchestra a crystalline demonstration of what the music is all about — its hard-won note of triumph, its seasoned acknowledgment of life's ceaseless profit and loss, the way those elements can be indelibly linked in abstract music.
Kirill Gerstein matched his temperament to the piece.

What stood out the most, however, is the superior flow of the score throughout and its particular eloquence at ebb tide. As much as I hate "best-of" lists, I can't resist nominating Friday's performance of the Larghetto as the best slow movement I've heard from the ISO in recent memory. A slow movement with a wealth of sculpting risks sagging here and there, even becoming threadbare, but this one never did. The string choir proved eminently adjustable.

The traditionally placed scherzo movement, launched with pep and incorporating hectic levels of excitement along the way, boasted a well-sustained pulse even when the texture became wispy. The  authoritative sweep upward in the final measures was exhilarating. The grandeur and melodic variety in the finale shone through the close-to-cluttered deployment of the full force.

There were welcome indications of Znaider's sensitivity to phrasing before intermission, too, especially in the second movement of the "Emperor" concerto. That piece brought back to the ISO schedule Kirill Gerstein as a piano soloist of distinction. He is an artist of immediately arresting temperament and flair, as the unusual cadenza-like opening of the work made clear. This was a full-throated interpretation of the E-flat concerto, high-romantic in personality. Consequently, in the first movement there was some banging from the keyboard, seconded by the orchestra, unfortunately. At times, secondary matter in the left hand could have used more emphasis.

The slow movement, with its muted orchestral introduction, found good balance right away upon the piano's entrance. Gerstein always had something pertinent to say, pointing out harmonic changes with accents where appropriate. The tense transition into the finale was adroit, and there the soloist's assertiveness received steady confirmation from the accompaniment. That made for a fully effective partnership in a self-sufficient concert companion to the Elgar symphony. It certainly didn't make me wish for von Suppe and Wieniawski instead.

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