Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Symphony Review: Emanuel Ax brings down the house at Powell Hall

Emanuel Ax
Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson
What: Music of Elgar, Detlev Glanert, and Brahms
Where: Powell Hall, St. Louis
When: April 25 and 26, 2015

It has been over two and one-half years since renowned pianist Emanuel Ax last appeared on the Powell Hall stage. Based on the stunning performance he and David Robertson gave us of the Brahms Second Concerto this past Sunday, that's at least two years too long. Combined with an impeccable version of Elgar's "Introduction and Allegro" and a new work by Detlev Glanert, it made for a thoroughly satisfying afternoon at the symphony.

Brahms' "Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major," Op. 83, is one of the most formidable of the Romantic piano concerti, although not for the usual reasons. Yes, it's technically challenging, but audibly less so than some of the late 19th-century finger-busters by (say) Rubinstein, Scharwenka, or Medtner.

With the Brahms, though, it’s partly a matter of sheer endurance. With four movements (as opposed to the usual three) and a running time of around fifty minutes, the piece was, at the time of its 1881 premiere, the longest piano concerto ever written. The real challenge, though, is artistic. The pianist who takes on the Second has to have not only technique and stamina but also a grasp of symphonic form—which is not guaranteed, even among some of the world’s most prominent players.

Mr. Ax, however, clearly has all three. The opening of the Allegro non troppo first movement, with Thomas Jöstlein's lovely horn solo and Mr. Ax's graceful reply, was a thing of beauty. But when, only a few pages later, the piano part began to explode in a flurry of runs and octaves, Mr. Ax tore them off with ease.

The Allegro appassionato second movement crackled with energy. The lyrical third movement Andante soared on the wings of the soulful duet between Mr. Ax and the heartfelt cello of Danny Lee. And the following Allegretto grazioso finale, which Mr. Robertson and Mr. Ax elected to play attacca (without pause), demonstrated that Mr. Ax can make the piano dance as well as sing and thunder.

Throughout the performance, Mr. Ax and Mr. Robertson did a marvelous job of clarifying and maintaining the momentum of Brahms' massive and occasionally murky musical architecture. The Brahms Second is a symphonic-weight concerto and it got an exceptionally well thought-out reading when we heard it Sunday afternoon.

Emily Ho
The orchestra, as it so often does, played beautifully. I have already commented on the fine work by Mr. Jöstlein and his colleagues in the horn section, but there were also captivating moments from Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks. And, of course, there was Mr. Lee's cello. Mr. Ax shook his hand at least three times during the many curtain calls—a reminder of the real chemistry between them during the second movement.

Sunday's concert opened with another display of solid technique and unimpeachable taste as four members of the SLSO string section—violinists Emily Ho and Nicolae Bica, violist Morris Jacob, and cellist Anne Fagerburg—joined the symphony strings for Elgar's "Introduction and Allegro," op. 47. Written on commission in 1905 to show off the strings of the newly established London Symphony Orchestra, the work follows the form of the Baroque concerto grosso, even including a fugue in the concluding allegro. But it does so with all the profound romantic feeling that can be found in so much of Elgar's music.

Nicolae Brica
Mr. Robertson's approach to this work was wonderfully lush, full-blooded, and intense. It was just lavish enough to be moving without feeling mannered. Every member on the quartet played with warmth and finesse, and the SLSO strings had a rich, deep sound that suited this music well. "Bravi" to all.

The first half of the concert concluded with the St. Louis premiere of "Frenesia" ("Frenzy") by contemporary German composer Detlev Glanert. Commissioned in 2014 to celebrate the 150th birthday of Richard Strauss, the piece was inspired by Strauss’ semi-autobiographical tone poem "Ein Heldenleben."

Morris Jacob
In a video interview with Mr. Robertson played on the Powell Hall movie screen before the performance, Mr. Glanert provided some "Cliff's Notes" for his music, including an interesting explanation of how the work's energetically noisy opening pays homage to the initial measures of "Heldenleben." It was useful information, but didn't change the sense I already had from listening to the work's world premiere performance by Xian Zhang and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (now available on YouTube) that this is mostly a flashy package without much inside.

Still, it's rather fun, even if it often sounds like the score for an "Alien" sequel. Like the tone poem that inspired it, "Frenesia" is marked by strong contrasts in which loud, aggressive orchestral outbursts abruptly give way to passages of surprising delicacy. And like Strauss, Glanert pushes the instruments to their limit and uses a variety of unusual performance techniques. The strings, in particular, got quite a workout, with glissandi, harmonics, and various forms of col legno bowing.

Anne Fagerburg
That makes it a challenge for the musicians, I would think, but the SLSO musicians were more than up to it Sunday afternoon with impressively powerful and controlled playing. That included fine work by Cally Banham on English horn, some wonderfully eerie passages from Danny Lee, and a spectacular flute solo about half-way through from Andrea Kaplan. I'm not sure I ever need to hear this music again, but it was fairly enjoyable while it lasted.

Lorrraine Glass-Harris
The performance of "Frenesia" was preceded by an affectionate farewell from Mr. Robertson for second violinist Lorraine Glass-Harris, who is retiring at the end of this season after over four decades with the SLSO. Ms. Glass-Harris has been featured as soloist with the SLSO, on KFUO radio in "From the Garden-Live!," in Chamber Music St. Louis, and with the Compton Heights Concert Band. She's also a Baroque music specialist, with a 1779 Joseph Gagliano violin and 1750 English bow, so I expect we'll continue to hear from her on the local chamber music scene.

Next at Powell Hall: David Robertson conducts the orchestra with harpist Allegra Lilly and tuba player Michael Sanders on Friday at 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., May 1-3. On the program are orchestral selections from "Carmen," Debussy's "Danses sacrée et profane (Sacred and Profane Dances)" for harp and orchestra, Vaughan Williams' 1954 "Tuba Concerto," and the ever-popular "Bolero." The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information:

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