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Commanding brilliance, sometimes banality

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
11/19/2014 -  & November 20, 2014
Benjamin Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10
Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S. 125
Johannes Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a
Paul Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphoses of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber

Louis Lortie (piano)
National Arts Centre Orchestra, Michael Francis (conductor)

M. Francis (© Chris Christodoulou)

Opening and closing with stunning presentations of Britten and Hindemith, this week’s subscription concert by the National Arts Centre Orchestra was arguably the most vibrant to date in NACO’s forty-fifth season. Major credit goes to yet another rising UK conductor, Michael Francis, who commanded the orchestra with subtlety and aplomb from the first note of Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, scored solely for strings. The performance displayed exceptional transparency and dynamic range through the elegantly plaintiff harmonics of the fourth variation, Romance, the atypical rhythms of the sixth, Bourrée classique, the satanic brio of the eighth, Moto Perpetuo, and the pizzicato double bass crescendo of the ninth, Funeral March. The climactic Fugue and Finale was breathtaking, a virtuoso performance from every player on stage and the kind which happens only when a superb conductor is in charge.

Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, using the full ensemble, brought the same rarefied finesse to the opening Allegro and to the Scherzo [additionally titled Turandot and derived from the Carlo Gozzi play which also inspired the Puccini opera] which concludes with a delicate fugue. The Andantino then final March are further characterized by Hindemith’s unique sense of evolving tonalities and concurrent melodic development. The constant dialogue within dense orchestration, especially percussion, was featured with particular brilliance.

The evening also included Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn. The Brahms (in reality, probably not based on a theme of Haydn) was generally very well played, though brass and winds did not have the polish and subtlety which strings demonstrated throughout.

The Liszt, frankly, is a work long past its shelf life, a comparatively early attempt by the composer to create a symphonic poem in concerto format which, however, fails because the melodies and overall development of materials are repetitive, even trite, and the piano figuration borders on self-parody. The droning, dour opening theme sets the work’s melodramatic tone. Occasional stretches of genuine inspiration --- a few brief cadenzas by guest soloist Louis Lortie and a lovely cello solo by assistant principal Julia MacLaine --- were insufficient to overcome the prevailing banality. Lortie is among Canada’s pre-eminent pianists and has been well established internationally since his youth. While he’s known as a Liszt specialist, this Concerto wastes his talent. With an orchestra, it would be far more interesting to hear Lortie perform Liszt’s Totentanz, a work of genuine maturity and ingenious structure.

Indeed, neither Lortie nor Francis seemed overly comfortable with the Concerto. Perhaps there was limited rehearsal time, which would explain the near metronomic tempi throughout --- some rubato and blatant flash might have brought a bit more life to the performance. A further problem was the Hamburg Steinway, Southam Hall’s house instrument, which simply doesn’t project well over the orchestra; there were similar issues with recent and acoustically muddy performances by pianists Emanuel Ax (read here) and Jeremy Denk (and here).

However, even with the disappointing Liszt, conductor Michael Francis acquitted himself impressively with commanding brilliance for most of the concert. Hopefully, he’ll be a regular guest on NACO’s podium in future seasons.

Charles Pope Jr.



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