Monday, 19 December 2011

Thibaudet lends grace and depth to Liszt

Musikverein, 15/12/2011

Wiener Symphoniker, Fabio Luisi, Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Strauss: Don Juan, op. 20
Liszt: Piano Concerto no. 2 in A major, S. 125
Brahms: Symphony no. 2 in D major, op. 73

This concert saw some transcendental Liszt sandwiched between two disappointments. After Dudamel and the Phil I was ready – and expecting – to hear a more persuasive Don Juan. The Symphoniker’s was the better played by a whisker, and while Luisi’s single-minded determination to keep things tidy and transparent was something I could go along with (good, after the other week, to hear things like the flute really leading the modulation into the G major idyll), it gradually dawned that a visualization of the study score was occupying my thoughts more than the music. And with that at the forefront of my mind, I couldn’t help but compare Dudamel’s Heldenthema, which pointed the way to a rondo despite distorted tempi elsewhere, with the slipperiness of Luisi’s theme. Is the formal elusiveness of the work (sonata, rondo, a combination, or sui generis are the hotly debated options) really better met with evasion than examination? Odd expressive touches and the glow of the strings notwithstanding, a sense of interpretative blankness sapped the clarity of interest.

Luisi’s preoccupation with matters of balance – not quite opera conducting, but close – worked to greater effect in the Liszt. Jean-Yves Thibaudet couldn’t have asked for more support and didn’t once have to force the sound as he did with the Concertgebouw a few weeks ago. There was much more clarity in the bass, and the passagework saw less all-purpose sparkling tone and more seamless legato, with the contrast of a slightly padded touch giving way at astutely judged moments to notes that glistened only as much as they needed to (very characterful and somewhat of a Thibaudet signature). And for all Barenboim’s insight and experience as a chamber musician, I do not recall him, in his June performance of this concerto (with Boulez, also Musikverein), complementing the horn and cello solos half as sensitively as Thibaudet did, or elevating the pivoting of underlying harmonies to something of transformational significance. The playing may have sounded more like Chopin, but there was some powerful Liszt advocacy going on in this performance. My orchestral musician companion also noted that with Thibaudet paying close attention to the musicians to pick up his cues, he’s rarely seen such an orchestra-friendly pianist.

The Symphoniker’s Brahms 2 was only good for prompting the familiar question of why is it that pedestrian Brahms performances are so much worse than merely bad ones? The orchestra was on autopilot for the first three movements, and Luisi’s only contribution was to keep things moving fairly briskly (though that this is no silver bullet for avoiding monotony was all too evident). Things picked up a little with the final movement, but the middle sagged as much as what had gone before. Brass at the end were excellent even if the effort made was too little too late.

Image credit: Kasskara / Decca

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