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Morlot and Groh débuts at the NSO

Kennedy Center Concert Hall
10/08/2009 -  & October 9, 10
Bohuslav Martinu: The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, H. 352
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini, op. 32
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto no. 1 in d minor, op. 15

Markus Groh (Piano)
National Symphony Orchestra, Ludovic Morlot (Conductor)

L. Morlot (© Gene Elling)

This second concert of the 2009/2010 season of the National Symphony Orchestra was remarkable not only for the outstanding débuts of the young French conductor Ludovic Morlot and the young German pianist Markus Groh, but also for the brilliant playing and virtuosity of the orchestra itself. Under the baton of Maestro Morlot the NSO had a luster and passion that was seemingly absent from the opening night concert only a week ago under the direction of Iván Fischer. Morlot, who is also a violinist, drew an exceedingly lush sound from the strings that recalled the heyday of Mstislav Rostropovich’s leadership of the orchestra. Pianist Groh was also impressive, but not without some problems which may have been due to his last minute replacement of scheduled artist Nelson Freire. Due to the outbreak of Swine Flu in Brazil, pianist Freire was restricted from returning to the US.

Composer Bohuslav Martinu made a visit to central Italy in 1955, where in the town of Arezzo he discovered the frescoes of Piero della Francesca in the Basilica of San Francesco. He was enamored of the style and content of Piero’s work, particularly the collective episodes known as The Legend of the True Cross, and it inspired him to compose these frescoes of his own. Martinu’s biographer Brian Large states that in Piero’s frescoes Martinu “found the substance of all that he wanted to put into music…colors of nature…simplicity of form…the philosophy of acceptance and resignation.” These Frescoes by Martinu are non-programmatic and set into three movements that embody a sense of unfolding space. The music is particularly noteworthy for its unusual and highly original scoring. Maestro Morlot led the orchestra in a strong and convincing rendition of this poetic and atmospheric music.

Tchaikovsky’s fascinating tone poem Francesca da Rimini was the highpoint of the evening. It is based on a tale in the “Inferno” section of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. In the story Dante and Virgil encounter the pathetic Francesca and her lover Paolo. She narrates to Dante how they were slain by her husband (Paolo’s brother) when he encountered them locked in a lover’s embrace. Francesca and Paolo are now doomed for eternity to be buffeted on the howling winds of Hell. Unlike Martinu’s Frescoes, this composition is program music in its best form. Although it is a real “crowd pleaser”, Francesca da Rimini is nonetheless a magnificent composition with extremely virtuoso writing for the brass, winds, strings, and percussion. I cannot recall any work that has many climaxes and cymbal crashes as this piece. The winds of Hell literally blow in your face! The middle section, representing Francesca’s poignant tale of woe to Dante, is a haunting melody for solo clarinet, which was beautifully intoned by principal clarinetist Loren Kitt. In fact all of the sections of the orchestra were dazzling and impressive to say the very least. It must be said of Maestro Morlot, that he is able to draw exiting and dramatic playing from the orchestra without resorting to physical histrionics on his part. There is no leaping in the air, no frantic waving of the “stick.” He is always clear, concise, calm, and connected to the music.
A trait which is most admirable but not found in many conductors, especially the young ones. I do hope the NSO will contract him for a return engagement in the near future.

Brahms’ First piano concerto is an enormous work. It was originally conceived as a symphony, which accounts for its size and proportions. Beginning with an exceptionally stirring and vigorous playing of the introduction, Morlot and the orchestra accompanied superbly throughout the concerto. Markus Groh’s performance, however, was somewhat of a “mixed bag.” He certainly had a command and sense of the architecture and style of the work, which he easily conveyed to the audience. However, in his attempt to match the volume of Brahms’ heavy orchestration, he resorted to a great deal of pounding and banging on the keyboard. His articulation was not particularly good, and this concerto, even with its size, is not a virtuoso work. It did not make a positive impression. His best playing came in the second movement where his restraint and tranquility brought out a good deal of poetry and sweetness. The third movement, alas, began very poorly. His right hand was out of sync with the left hand in the opening descending passages, and when the phrase repeated itself he still did not have it together. Once again he began pounding his way to the end. I will say that his playing of the final long cadenza was impeccably shaped and delivered, but by that point the concerto was over.

Micaele Sparacino



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