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A Bis for Biss?

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/28/2019 -  
Joseph Haydn: L’isola disabitata: Overture – Symphony No. 45 in F sharp minor “Farewell”
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Major, op. 19
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Ch’io mi scordi di te?...Non temer, amato bene, K. 505

Ying Fang (Soprano), Jonathan Biss (Piano)
Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Bernard Labadie (Principal Conductor)

B. Labadie (© Hiroyuki Ito)

Though the Orchestra of St. Luke’s is an ensemble of free-lancers, it offers performances that can put some steady orchestras to shame. Needless to say, the musicians of this orchestra belong to the NY elite of instrumentalists and I suppose any major orchestra would welcome them into its ranks. This season OSL, as it’s being called, commences a new relationship with the well-known Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie, known as one of the most acclaimed specialist in the Baroque/Classical repertory; he previously lead such recognized Canadian ensembles as Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec. With his last concert, he came back to the two composers, Haydn and Mozart, that he had already featured in his October performances. This time, a major attraction of his program was supposed to be the appearance of the English pianist Paul Lewis, a widely admired musician – as was his mentor Alfred Brendel – for his performances of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Schubert.

It was, however, the second time within a little more than one month that a pianist many expected to hear cancelled at the last moment and within a day Carnegie Hall had to find a replacement: in my decades of attending concerts, I don’t recall a similar instance, but the choice fell again to the same pianist who, in January 2019, replaced the indisposed Leif Ove Andsnes. That was Jonathan Biss; his all-Beethoven recital was reviewed here and the review was far from ecstatic.

So now this critic had an uneasy task ahead of him: to attend the concert or not, to eschew reviewing this particular soloist or to approach his performance as if the Beethoven recital never happened? Being a long time admirer of Mr. Biss, I decided to attend with hopes that my previous reservations would be erased. In some European countries, when enthusiastic audiences demand an encore, they scream “bis!”. Hence the title of the review.

To some extent, his performance of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2 brought back some of the glorious playing I thought so highly of more than a decade back, when as a young musician starting his international career, he played it with the New York Philharmonic. From the onset, Maestro Labadie and the splendid sounding OSL adopted an unusually crisp, sprightly, vigorous tempo that was fast but very appropriate for the score which is still suffused with Mozartian lightness and clarity: I recall that in my youth, before I knew all the Beethoven and Mozart piano concertos, I would mistake this concerto for one written by Beethoven’s idol. The first movement was full of energy, perhaps borderline relentless but luckily didn’t cross that fine line. The third movement Rondo. Allegro molto was taken in a similarly unstoppable fashion and in a few places it almost derailed. So the question needs to be asked: has Mr. Biss, with this concerto, changed his manner of playing? The answer is “not really”: perhaps this time the nature of the piece itself better supported the rushing scales and arpeggios that now seem to be Mr. Biss’ trademark. What will, however, remain in this listener memory were moments of real beauty and a very effective narration in the first movement cadenza (added to the score by the composer many years after its initial publication): it was dramatic, declamatory and... again garbled when fast notes appeared. The gorgeous, singing tone of the piano and cantilena demonstrated in the Adagio showed us the best qualities of this immensely talented pianist and musician, whose fingers often operate faster than necessary. The same can be said about the vigorous, virtuosic last movement Rondo. Allegro molto, which felt more like vivace but even with little rushing, it didn’t bother me much as a whole and the exhilarating feeling was most welcomed.

The program opened and closed with works of Joseph Haydn: the Sturm and Drang style of the overture to L’isola disabilata (1779) set the tone of the whole evening. Mr. Labadie and his forces presented a lean, clear, precise sound and a ferocious temper, making us in the audience wish for more of this kind of repertory. Labadie is able to reveal with the OSL the best qualities of period performance practice but infused with the more robust sound of contemporary ensemble. Similar to his predecessor, Sir Roger Norrington, Mr. Labadie also conducts sitting down but eschews some of Sir Roger’s affected behavior and arguable choices, such as for example positioning members of the orchestra around the piano when performing piano concertos.

It is fun, once in a while, to hear a performance of the famous “Farewell” Symphony, the one in which during the concluding Adagio, following a proper finale Presto, musicians one by one leave the stage, leaving only the concertmaster and one more violinist. This symphony is notable for being about the only one in the rarely used key of F-sharp minor. According to the sources at the time of composition, the court artisans at the Esterházy estate of Prince Nicolas I were requested by the composer to create special nooks for the horns so they can play otherwise inaccessible sounds. The symphony, even without its title and dramatic finale, would be recognized as a masterwork for the fervent, blistering first movement Allegro assai, and then for the melancholy in the subsequent Adagio.

As for the concluding Adagio, that real parting moment when both the composer and orchestra are sending a strong signal to their employer, always seemed that here Papa Haydn presents himself as perhaps an early labor leader, who in a gentle and yet unequivocal manner let the Prince know how the musicians of his orchestra felt. Well, those were different times... On the stage of Carnegie, wait: the proper name should be Ronald O. Perelman Stage (as if there were more than two stages in the Isaac Stern Auditorium...), musicians were, in a manner of old times, turning their music-stand lights and leaving one by one and that included our conductor. Audience had a good time judging from the laughter.

The one thing however that I would like to know would be Haydn’s reaction to the performance itself: would he believe that playing of that order is even possible? To my mind, what we heard in this Haydn symphony simply doesn’t come much better, at least not often and even by much more renowned ensembles.

With this concert, a famous “farewell line” from the legendary movie Casablanca comes to mind: with Maestro Labadie at the helm of those virtuoso players of OSL, it looks like the beginning of a new, wonderful relationship. We, in the audience, couldn’t ask for more.

Roman Markowicz



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