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The Youths’ Magic Horns…And Strings…And Piano

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
02/10/2011 -  & Feb. 11, 12, 2011
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto Number 3 in C Minor, Opus 37
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony Number 5 in D Minor, Opus 47

Jonathan Biss (Pianist)
New York Philharmonic, Andris Nelsons

A. Nelsons (© Latvian National Opera)

When Jonathan Biss and Andris Nelsons strolled on stage last night, they could have been a couple of kids on Main Street USA. True, both of them are about 30, but compared to the stolid starched New York Phil players and the mainly aged audience in the packed house, they looked far younger than their years.

But Avery Fisher Hall is hardly Main Street, and this pair have separately been exciting world audiences for more than a decade. This may have been their first time pairing up, but their ages, their ideas and their young agile movements went hand(s) in hand(s).

On the podium, the Latvian-born Andris Nelsons crouches like a wildcat springing forward or hushed down, always in movement, though hardly exaggerated. At the Steinway, New York-born Jonathan Biss controls every note on the piano, sometimes rushing a passage or two, but always returning triumphantly from his forays.

These two adventured into that wondrous Beethoven Third Concerto, which is so frequently destroyed by elegant shapely playing. Mr. Biss does play the most elegant Schubert and the most poetic Janácek. But in this Beethoven, especially the first movement, he was sharp, incisive and fiercely energetic. The opening was uncomfortably martial, yet within seconds he transformed the notes undulating save, magnificent trills and a sharp cascading fountain.

Like so many others, Mr. Biss eschewed Beethoven’s cadenza and wrote his own. That was a mixed blessing. The first half was simply show-off stuff (as a cadenza should be), the piano rolling the most difficult roulade around the main themes. When he changed key, he was more inventive, and Mr. Nelsons led the orchestra to a glorious end.

One is so interested in Mr. Biss’s virtuosity that the second movement glided quickly past. The rondo did not disappoint. Mr. Biss took those rapid measures after the trumpet call like a single arpeggio chord, he played amiably with the orchestra, and paused just fractionally enough to allow us to still be surprised by Beethoven’s surprise ending.

Since conductor Nelsons was originally a trumpet player, it goes without saying that he must have made special care with the Philharmonic strings, and they did sound glorious, both in the concerto and the Shostakovich Fifth. For the latter, from the Concertmaster’s acerbic solos to the dark Russian ensemble string playing, this was a measured performance, Mr. Nelsons allowing the voices to soar.

We have all heard conductors milking the Allegro non troppo so furiously that audiences cry “Huzzah! Huzzah” jumping up with the same fervor as watching an Egyptian dictator go down. Mr. Nelsons may look like he’s going to leap into the orchestra, and he played it fervently, yes, but with the musical care and detailed excitement which that finale well deserves.

Harry Rolnick



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