in: Reviews

April 20, 2018

Pianist and Conductor Debut at Symphony Hall

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Conductor Tugan Sokhiev debuted with the BSO Thursday, directing brilliant pieces composed by youngsters. Having a forceful 23-year-old Canadian virtuoso and the conductor, who is an exemplar of the up and coming part of the Russian musical establishment, guaranteed a certain amount of energy, though that energy spread unevenly.

Britten’s delightful Simple Symphony, a chockful of musical ideas fed by unbounded creativity of the composer’s juvenilia, premiered in 1934 with just nine strings, and frequently has been played by even smaller groups. BSO and Sokhiev came out in full force — 8 players in each of da braccio sections and 6 each of cellos and basses — and set themselves up for some challenges. The Boysterous Bouree, the first movement, did not sound as crisp and neo Baroque as it should. It was a rare example of this orchestra not sounding together.

With Playful Pizzicato, though, everything came back into order: the orchestra was fun again. The slow movement that followed turned the spotlight toward the podium: in this early precursor of later Britten’s angst and drama, Sokhiev introduced himself as a specialist. He had conducted Britten at Bolshoi, and one could easily imagine a highly rewarding Peter Grimes led by this baton.

Sokhiev moves beautifully. Sometimes he is very endearing with extremely economic indications of speed or dynamic range, and sometimes he is quite explicit, just short of calling players by name in his specific indication of accents. His manner was fully present in Britten, but became especially obvious in Chopin’s E Minor concerto that followed.

Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki, also debuting with BSO, joined the orchestra augmented with the winds and timpani. Sokhiev started with suitably matter-of-fact introduction of the two major themes, leaving the exploration to the piano. Superb in his perfect articulation the soloist also sounded quite soulful in his ritardandi, with modest and tasteful use of rubato and overall impression of the idiomatic. His robust articulation dominated however: Lisiecki placed unusually strong accents on the accompaniment, creating harmonically interesting sound, but somewhat drowning the main voice. Sokhiev at the same time was artfully laboring at the orchestral part, sinking the idea that Chopin was really just thinking about the piano part. His attention to accents became extreme: he gestured to sections with determination of someone calling in some old favors. It was interesting to listen to and a great spectacle.

Tugan Sokhiev conducts Jan Lisieck and the BSO (Hilary Scott photo)

Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Chopin’s dedicatee, was also a star performer and influential composer. It would be very easy to write off his own first piano concerto as completely derived from Chopin, if not for the fact that it was written a few years earlier. Upon arrival to Paris, the young respectful Pole with two piano concerti under his belt seriously considered enrolling into Kalkbrenner’s class to study his piano technique. If there is a good explanation of why Chopin’s concerti are on the top shelf while his idol’s music is barely heard today, it doesn’t come down to difference in the musical idiom. I would argue it has to do with storytelling and the power of conviction.

Kalkbrenner would have approved of the forcefully delivered, hyper-articulated performance by Lisiecki and of Sokhiev’s artful accompaniment. Hell, maybe even the young Chopin, in his admiration of the virtuoso technique, would have approved wholeheartedly. A listener, who had at least once experienced a less artful and more wistful delivery of this piece, would be less satisfied. Having once heard the 12-year-old Kissin’s debut with this concerto, this reviewer is addicted to the experience of being left breathless, rather than dazzled.

Once the obligatory solo encore — Chopin’s Nocturn in C-sharp Minor, op posthumous, in this case — was out of the way, it was back to orchestra business. Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony was pure vintage BSO: vivid colors, lush and transparent. The pilgrim procession in the slow movement rested on beautifully clean ostinato of double bases. Sokhiev smoothly collaborated with the sections, and the gorgeous winds added their moments of expressiveness. It added up to overall joy and complete satisfaction.

Victor Khatutsky is a software developer who reviewed music as a US-based freelancer for the Kommersant Daily of Moscow. He has been known for occasionally traveling long distances to catch his favorite performers.

5 Comments

  1. I agree with Victor, but with the following additions:I attended the Friday afternoon performance and was less than dazzled. Tugan Sokhiev played HIS version of every orchestral piece–down to [almost] conducting every note and accent for every instrument. The BSO, to its credit, responded well to his idiosyncrasies. This orchestra can do anything! Jan Lisieck’s performance of the Chopin was also idiosyncratic and left me longing for the romantic beauty of a Rubinstein or a Schiff. Lisieck is a phenomenon who needs more maturity to reign in his dazzling virtuosity. His encore was Schuman’s Traumerei, played at a “largissimo” speed; I have never heard it slower. A patron near me said after the piece, “Thank goodness it’s finally over”. But the concert was a welcome change to the Bucker, Mahler, Shostakovich menus we have heard for many months under Nelsons: exciting, but with a need for more polish and maturity.

    Comment by RSB — April 21, 2018 at 7:34 am

  2. What an extraordinary concert whether enjoyed for its parts or enjoyed as a whole.

    Obviously the ‘center fold’ was the pianist- the audience got it: a spontaneous standing ovation on Friday afternoon! I recall a concert when the composer of a new piece stood up for an accolade and the audience stood up and walked out (even Munch seemed to get lost as he conducted).

    I remember listening to a pianist, now renown, of about the same age as Lisieck. Then one could sense a great pianist through the youthful banging about of adolescent exuberance. I expected the same on Friday: instead I was left “breathless rather than dazzled” (really breathless).

    I expect credit for the concert should also go to Andris Nelsons- we are hearing concerts of the quality I remember of Munch. I have to add that any expertise I have results from immersion not from devotion- I am in the same seats I sat in when in grade school in the late 1940’s.

    If you can still get tickets- GO! This is a concert that should have standing room only.

    ur reviews.)

    Comment by John — April 21, 2018 at 9:09 am

  3. Victor Khatusky: “A listener, who had at least once experienced a less artful and more wistful delivery of this piece, would be less satisfied. Having once heard the 12-year-old Kissin’s debut with this concerto, this reviewer is addicted to the experience of being left breathless, rather than dazzled. Once the obligatory solo encore — Chopin’s Nocturn in C-sharp Minor, op posthumous, in this case — was out of the way, it was back to orchestra business.”

    RSB: “His encore was Schuman’s [sic] Traumerei, played at a “largissimo” speed; I have never heard it slower. A patron near me said after the piece, “Thank goodness it’s finally over”.”

    Funny how differently another’s ears and musical minds hear things! Although I missed the performances that inspired the observations above, I did hear both Saturday and Tuesday performances. Last things first: Jan Lisiecki’s encores – the C# minor Nocturne, Op. Posth. (Sat) and Träumerei (Tues) – were unfurled from the highest pinnacles of pianistic art. Each achieved a radiance and etheric sublimity that seemed to mesmerize everyone on stage and in the seats. I cannot remember experiencing a more profound silence and engagement from a Symphony Hall audience – a rapture reflected as well among friends in the orchestra. To judge by the reviewer’s utter dismissal of the encore (which is hardly obligatory in any event), one must take him at his word that his ears were full of other pianists’ playing – always a pitfall for the musically active and informed. Let me add that, wondrous though I regard Evgeny Kissin’s extraordinary debut, in no way did it compete for space in my ears during Lisiecki’s, coming from such a differently wonderful musical sensibility. I share the reviewer’s impression, though, that Chopin might well have relished Lisiecki’s approach, whose trenchant articulation and dazzling dynamic range probably came closer to that of the young composer’s dedicatee, Friedrich Kalkbrenner. On the other hand, the way Lisiecki and the orchestra under Sokhiev unspooled the Romanze left me utterly breathless on both evenings. It was indeed, as Chopin himself wrote, “a moonlit reverie on a lovely evening in spring.” This listener was most satisfied.

    As for the other works on the program: for the most part, I enjoyed both the Britten and Mendelssohn on Saturday night, but absolutely loved the Tuesday performances. Their focus was sharper, the textures more transparent, the allegros electric. In particular, the band’s intensity during Mendelssohn’s presto saltarello in the finale almost made my heart skip along with the dotted eighth notes.

    Comment by nimitta — April 25, 2018 at 12:31 pm

  4. The string complement for the Britten Simple Symphony was 10 first and 10 second violins, 8 violas, 6 cellos, and 4 basses, not “8 players in each of da braccio sections and 6 each of cellos and basses” as the reviewer states. The Mendelssohn orchestra added one more first violinist.

    Comment by Stephen Owades — April 28, 2018 at 1:30 am

  5. On the subject of the strings roll call, I wonder if your are describing a different performance of this program. I distinctly remember 6 basses, though there is always a chance that two were just doing lip syncing.

    Comment by Victor Khatutsky — May 1, 2018 at 3:48 pm

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