Saturday, November 3, 2018

Jan Lisiecki, piano soloist with the ISO, probes to the heart of the Grieg concerto

Stories of masterpieces underappreciated when they were new are always good for poignancy and reassurance that now we know better. But some favorites still today were introduced to the world and quickly found favor.

Two works whose history begins with "instant-hit" status form the bulk of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's program this weekend. Music director Krzysztof Urbanski is back on the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium to conduct Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D major and Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor. To open the program, he swings to the much less familiar: "Polymorphia" by his Polish countryman Krzysztof Penderecki.

Jan Lisiecki, now 23, in a publicity photo from a few years ago, when he was building a reputation
For the Grieg concerto, a much-admired pinnacle of Romantic contributions to the piano-and-orchestra genre, he and the ISO enjoyed the presence of Jan Lisiecki in the solo role.  A young Canadian of Polish extraction, Lisieki showed himself Friday evening to be a pianist of personality and authority.

Those qualities in concert artists are sometimes confused. To put a personal stamp on familiar repertoire is one thing; to execute it authoritatively requires considerable respect for what's on the  page and possession of the technique and insight to put it across.

Lisiecki's performance satisfied on both counts. He commanded a broad dynamic spectrum, with louds and softs that never sounded arbitrary. The cadenzas in the first and third movements roared definitively when they needed to. The perky finale displayed Lisiecki's clarity and rhythmic sharpness. The sound was always brilliant without being clangorous. As the slow movement in particular showed, he can impart a nice ring to a melodic line. The tone was always attractive, with purposeful pedaling. (A Grieg miniature, "Arietta," offered as an encore, confirmed the sensitivity of the guest artist's touch.)

The concerto accompaniment fully complemented the solo playing. The cello-and-flute conversation in the first movement lingered plaintively before the energy that is conspicuous from the work's very beginning was gathered up again. The Andante maestoso peroration, so much a signpost of this kind of concerto as it sums things up, resulted in a (for once) fully justified standing ovation.

The concert (like the repeat at 7 p.m. today) opened with an early work by Penderecki — 10 minutes of timbral exploration for a large body of strings. "Polymorphia" brings an enthralling display of percussive taps and furtive squeals, sliding, and muttering out of the ensemble. All of it was well-managed by Urbanski, who offered beforehand a charming, illustrated introduction to the work.

After intermission, Urbanski's season-embracing survey of Brahms symphonies continued with the Second, the sunniest of the four. Brahmsian gravity is never far away in the course of the work's 40-minute span, but I'll admit to a bias in favor of performances that emphasize its lightness and high spirits without distortion. Unaccustomed as I am to bringing my record collection to bear on concert reviews, I've long been enamored of an old Philips LP with Pierre Monteux conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in the Brahms Second.

I suspect some listeners might suspect that account of being close to salon music, but Monteux and the LSO have plenty to say that sounds echt-Brahms to me. I'm declaring this bias mainly to praise Urbanski's rendition of the symphony Friday night. I felt he kept the textures clear and never scanted the gentleness and good humor that often bursts into play.

The gravitas of the Austro-German tradition as represented by Brahms made its considerable points as well. The character given to the work initially by the timpani (the estimable Jack Brennan) underscored its seriousness from the start, but there was also the right amount of lighter-than-air playing, as in Rob Danforth's soaring horn solo near the end of the first movement.

The second movement, perhaps a tad too slow (Adagio without the score's stipulated "non troppo"), had its pauses well-judged and its shadowy suggestions well-defined. The third movement heightened the colorfulness not often judged to be a salient Brahms quality — tutti bravi to the woodwinds.

In the finale, it was a slight pity the sotto voce start was ill-defined, but at least its reappearance was in sharper focus. Light and shade were effectively distributed over the course of the movement, capped by that magnificent coda, with a clarion descending phrase passed from winds to violins, and the trombones outstanding at the very end. I remember a perhaps slightly inebriated major patron of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, sitting near me at a Ford Auditorium concert long ago, responding to the final chords with a loud "Yes, sir!"

I can't say it any better than that.

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