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Ludwig and the Stallion

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/03/2008 -  
Thomas Adès: Three Studies From Couperin For Chamber Orchestra

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, Opus 73 (The Emperor) – Symphony No. 4

Hélène Grimaud (piano)
Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Xian Zhang (conductor)

Any concert with the New York premiere of a work by a major composer is an important event by definition. But the Orchestra of St. Luke’s afternoon concert belonged more to French pianist Hélène Grimaud than Great Britain’s renowned Thomas Adès.

Ms. Grimaud performed Beethoven’s ”Emperor” Concerto with a Beethoven-sized orchestra (St. Luke’s has about 50 players), but Ms. Grimaud never even considered the chamber dimensions. During her first movement, she played her Steinway like a galloping white stallion. Not that she took any liberties with the tempo, but from the very first rolling chords, her mastery of the keys, her rich liquid tones, her sense of tension, the subtle yet suspenseful crescendos were that of a thoroughbred. No other image could suffice, and if she was ready for more, we in the audience were positively breathless.

The Adagio was not exactly a letdown, but did seem little more than breathing space after the commanding opening. The final Rondo, though, was time for her to again show her brilliance. In one sense, Ms. Grimaud might not have done justice to Beethoven, since she seemed to take the most difficult passages (and this movement is technically a finger-breaker) with almost off-hand ease. But then, when one saw and heard how she transformed those demonic octave passages with feathery lightness, it showed the playful Beethoven at his most joyous.

And now we come to the composer of the day. Thomas Adès at the age of 37, is still described as “youthful” (though he has already lived longer than the “youthful” Mozart and Schubert). While his performance as a pianist is splendid, most of his fame is as a most fecund composer. And herein lies the problem. For though he has a great grasp of his art, and would never offer the public anything second-rate, he has sometimes written pieces that seem to have been composed without a great deal of thought.

In his studies of the French composer François Couperin, he was competing with Ravel’s Tombeau and Richard Strauss’ orchestration of the composer. But the result lay in neither of those camps. The first section, based on Les Amusements, was hardly amusing. Predominantly played in low strings and winds, it took the theme without any pauses, but made it flow in riverine fashion. The second, Les Tours de Passe-Passe had the distinct sound of Respighi. Not the bombastic Respighi, but the pointillistic composer of Ancient Airs and Dances. The finale, based on L’Âme-en-Peine was almost a literal transcription, mainly for string choir, the difference being that each cadence ended with one note on low brass and timpani. It was a rather gloomy ending.

With the performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, one finally had a chance to see the well-reputed conductor Xiang Zhang. A graduate of Beijing’s Central Conservatory, but happily living in America, she is fiercely athletic, energetic, and gave the bounce to Beethoven’s tone explosions. An orchestra with the expertise of St. Luke’s might not need all the precise cueing, but this was Ms. Zhang’s style, and the outcome, like the work itself, was quite dynamic.

Harry Rolnick



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