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Four Centuries, Four Nations

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
04/20/2017 -  & April 21, 22, 25, 2017
Hector Berlioz: Selections from Romeo and Juliet, Opus 17: Part Two, Scene one (Romeo alone, sadness, distant sounds of a concert and a ball. Great Festivities in Capulet’s Palace)
Timo Andres: “The Blind Banister”: Piano Concerto No. 3
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Opus 19
Sir Edward Elgar: In the South (Alassio), Opus 50

Jonathan Biss (Pianist)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Courtney Lewis (Conductor)

C. Lewis

“Like when the light goes out on the stairs and the hand follows–with confidence–the blind banister that finds its way in the darkness.”
From Schubertiana by Tomas Tranströmer, explaining the subtitle of Timo Andres’ Piano Concerto No. 3

That young Belfast-born conductor Courtney Lewis is already a magisterial vision for concert halls throughout Europe. Tall, graceful, not afraid to bend and sway, and to wield a long baton to get his way, Mr. Lewis has a splendid reputation, and this debut for a Philharmonic subscription audience should have been a memorable introduction.

It was a challenge, since the four works came from four centuries and four different countries, but Mr Lewis seemed comfortable with the diversity.

One hesitates to praise the opening “excerpts” from Berlioz Romeo and Juliet, since the entire “dramatic symphony” (the composer’s own half-hearted description) is as unbreakable as the Fantastic Symphony.

Thus, the few in the audience who knew that the unharmonized string introduction was a splendid picture of Romeo alone brooding, were taken in by the fine playing. Alas or (Hélas), most of the audience thought Mr. Lewis was warming up the orchestra for these long passages, so the first five minutes sounded like a Concerto for for violins, sneezes, coughs and other miscellaneous distasteful sounds.

Once the Phil gave note that it was in the Capulet Palace with all the festivities, they quieted down. But the spell–and this must be spellbinding music–had disappeared.

J. Biss (© J. Katz/EMI Classics)

Following this was the first of two works played by Jonathan Biss. Mr. Biss has been a favorite in New York for many years now, with many putting him in the class of a young Murray Perahia. He does have the elegance, the class, the innate musicality to please most audiences, especially those who don’t want to be rocked out with idiosyncratic playing.

Last night, ironically, that served him far better in Timo Andres’s 21st Century Third Piano Concerto, written for and dedicated to Mr. Biss. Like all of Mr. Andres works–I was thinking of his time-travelling Trade Winds and totally joyful Strong Language–this Concerto seems at first to be totally transparent. Very simple, a series of scales, one descending down the treble side of the piano, the other waiting, hesitating in the bass.

Now begins the fun, both for the careful elegant Mr. Biss and Mr. Lewis’s Philharmonic Orchestra. For these same scales work themselves into a propulsion, a series of leaps from the orchestra, even more complex scales and variations from the pianist. While Mr. Biss had requested something which might be kind of abstractly Beethoven-ish, this was pure Timo Andres. A music which was so persuasive in its ornery directions that one had to follow along. True, the second movement, Ringing Weights–Cadenza, was riding on the cusp of Gershwin without actually coming close to a Gershwin melody, Mr. Biss pushed through a splendid last movement which rang with lush orchestral and pianist chords. Lush, romantic, and suddenly...

Suddenly it came to a quick chordal finish. Just when we weren’t looking! Not a welcome surprise, because the textures were so appealing. But hopefully the piece will have been recorded for another listen. It a magnificent carpet of music, and while I was never sure where it was going, the trip itself was worth the effort.

That couldn’t be said for the Beethoven Second Concerto. As we all know, it was actually his first piano concerto, and wasn’t quite the revolutionary work which started with his Third Concerto. Nonetheless, this was Beethoven bursting from the pleasant confident seams of classicism, and can hardly be played like Mozart.

Mr. Biss, though, gave his own interpretation--and while he has the chops and technique to give it his reality, it didn’t sound like Beethoven at all. The fingers glided over the keyboard, the trills were gossamer light, the octaves were pure, untrammeled by errors.

But was this good enough? In the first movement, the martial theme, the lyric subsidiary theme were sublimated to Mr. Biss’ splendid fingers. He gave it a glossy touch from beginning to end, including even Beethoven’s cadenza. And yes, Beethoven probably wrote it as a showpiece for his own prowess. But that prowess was presumably power rather than salong loveliness. And this was salon playing of the highest order.

The Adagio is a glowing movement, though one felt it was simply a continuation of previous great fingerwork.

Of course Beethoven lets his finales burst open with jokes, antics, funny syncopation and the Promethean frolic. It is indeed marked Molto allegro, but Mr. Lewis took it as such a feverish pace that Mr. Biss played it like a marathon with the orchestra. He missed nary a beat (oh, actually a few notes of the opening theme), but never did he allow this movement to breathe, to allow us to participate in Beethoven’s antics.

From my earpoint, it was a terrific edifice of the composer, but without points, or angles or silhouettes.

It was a shame that much of the audience left after the Beethoven. They had come to hear Jonathan Biss, and an unknown overture was not to their liking. One pities them for, along with the concertos for cello and violin, and of course Falstaff, Sir Edward Elgar’s concert overture, In the South is one of the most gorgeous, muscular, totally inspired works ever written by the Edwardian stalwart.

It also has four or five different themes, all emotional, all powerful. And Courtney Lewis had the New York Philharmonic at its topmost excellence in bring out the power and the glory.

Well, almost, Sir Edward added after the middle a nostalgic viola solo, added with more Elgarian yearning. Yet never, when played well, does one stop to smell the roses of the Italian mountain town near Sorrento. Mr. Lewis, alas, shmaltzed it down to a pace approaching the bathetic, a few unfortunate moments which came close to Elgar’s salon pieces like Salut d’Amour. And In the South is a quadrant leap from that music.

Never mind. It was a momentary aberration, and Courtney Lewis finished with all the resplendent glory this piece deserves.

Harry Rolnick



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