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Warsaw Philharmonic Returns To Performing Arts Center at Purchase College

New York
Purchase (The Performing Arts Center at Purchase College)
10/21/2016 -  & October 30, 2016 (Amherst)
Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Polish Melodies, op. 47 No. 2
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C-minor, op. 37
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D-Major, op. 73

Seong-Jin Cho (Piano)
Warsaw Philharmonic, Jacek Kaspszyk (Music and Artistic Director)

J. Kaspszyk (© From the archives of Warsaw Philharmonic)

For many decades it was customary for the Warsaw Philharmonic and other visiting Polish orchestras to bring with them programs of traditional works and little-known soloists, chosen by American agents, who were almost never of Polish origin. The rationale behind this type of programming went like this: you will play mostly for audiences who don’t want to hear much modern music, so a Brahms or Tchaikovsky symphony will always be welcomed. What about the vast repertory of Polish orchestral music? The usual excuse for its absence was that supposedly many of those works demanded rather large forces, and the orchestra rarely brought its full roster of musicians on tour.

But happily, during the current 14-cities tour of this 115-year-old orchestra, some lesser known scores have been included. The orchestra’s new Music Director Jacek Kaspszyk, who assumed the position in 2013, decided to introduce American audiences to two compositions by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish-Jewish composer only recently recognized in his native country. The more important of Weinberg’s two works was his Symphony No. 4, which with these performances received its first American performances. The other significant change, this one in the choice of soloists, was the presence of a sensational Korean pianist Seung-Jin Cho, who in 2015 won first prize in the Frederic Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw.

Several of the orchestra programs on this tour opened with Weinberg’s charming Polish Melodies (from 1950). Here I will allow myself a little aside. When in 1966 the not-yet-legendary Soviet pianist Lazar Berman visited Warsaw where I grew up, in his program, he included a work we had never heard: Piano Sonata No. 6 by a barely known Russian composer named Moisei Weinberg. Well, we thought, a nice gesture to present a work by some Jewish-sounding composer, and quite an effective work at that. But no mention was made that Moisei’s name was originally Mieczyslaw, and that he was not Russian but Polish, born and educated as a pianist in Warsaw. Go figure... Only many years later the true story of this remarkable and extremely prolific composer, whose opera The Passenger was staged in Houston and in New York a couple of seasons back, started to be known. To make his tragic history a relatively short: with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Weinberg (or Wajnberg, as his name is sometimes spelled) as a Jew fled Warsaw and went to Minsk. By June 1941, with the onset of the German Invasion, he fled east again and ended up in Tashkent. Somehow one of his scores reached Dmitry Shostakovich, who almost immediately invited the young composer to join him in the capital. Ever since then, until his passing in 1996, Weinberg made Moscow his home.

As previously indicated, I made my choice to hear this orchestra more than once and chiefly on account of the varied repertory, slightly different at each of the first three concerts of the tour. In Purchase, for instance, I had the only chance to hear the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 as well as the opening piece, the Polish Melodies. That folklore-inspired work is a nice way to launch a program and dispose of the more traditional overtures. Weinberg remained close to Polish culture, language and music. In Soviet Russia this type of composition was welcomed by the authorities and folksy tunes would be preferred to the detested “western formalism”. In Weinberg’s suite the harmonies are never more than slightly piquant and only its final Mazur contains a bit more biting, dissonant chords. Still, the whole four-movement suite is impressively orchestrated and Kaspszyk makes a wise choice to use the final Mazur as an encore as he did during the concerts in New Brunswick and New York.

The Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 received, especially in the first movement, a rather rudimentary, breathless, somewhat inflexible reading. Then in the cadenza and remaining two movements things changed for the better and the performance gained in tenderness and charm and demonstrated a better sense of style. Yet not until the encore did Cho prove what a great a pianist he is. The Etude La campanella by Liszt received a performance that left this listener with his jaw dropped. The power, bravura, lightness, speed and the general disregard for the millions of difficulties Liszt throws at the interpreter seemed not to bother this young Korean. A friend who is a piano connoisseur and severe critic echoed my feelings when he declared that that was the best live interpretation he has ever heard.

The Brahms Symphony No. 2 received a generally excellent rendition. Here I felt an improvement in the orchestra sound and discipline, especially in view of the fact that the last time I heard this ensemble was in the very same venue. The strings had a lively, warm sound, cellos were radiantly singing their “famous tune” in the first movement, the French horns were spot-on and several of the instrumental solos were executed with distinction. One might have wished for a less direct and less rigid approach, where the music can really breathe, but yet Kaspszyk had a valid point of view that could hardly be argued with.

It was a very nice gesture to offer American audiences an American encore and nothing could have been more appropriate than the Overture to Candide by Leonard Bernstein. There was plenty of the flair, flamboyance and showiness this enthusiastic, joyful score demands. It seemed to me at first a bit too driven, but that is how even Bernstein himself used to conduct it in his younger years.

Roman Markowicz



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