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Assurance, authority and finesse

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
05/14/2015 -  & May 15, 2015
Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048 (*)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15
Igor Stravinsky: Suite from “The Firebird” (1945)
(*) (May 14, only)
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
National Arts Centre Orchestra, Alexander Shelley (conductor)

A. Shelley (© Fred Cattroll)

Music Director Designate for The National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO), Alexander Shelley returned to the podium this week for a further guest appearance before officially assuming his new job in September, and the result was a superb concert. In three very different works, Shelley demonstrated he can solicit highly finished, detailed, indeed immaculate playing from NACO’s players and, moreover, that he now has a strong handle on Southam Hall’s acoustics.

This came across most of all in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Benjamin Grosvenor, the astoundingly accomplished 22-year-old British pianist as soloist. Grosvenor projected with ease over the orchestra, which far more experienced players had not managed when they appeared here late last year, using the same Hamburg Steinway. Credit for this balance, however, goes to conductor Shelley as much as to Grosvenor.

Grosvenor performs with the assurance and authority perhaps not heard from a new young pianist since the early work of Martha Argerich in the 1960s, Murray Perahia in the 70s or Ivo Pogorelich in the 80s. His playing is characterized by a solid blend of precision, lyricism and rhythmic grip – the latter, even when he rushes slightly (which Argerich also did during her youth). The first movement of the Beethoven Concerto emphasized the work’s classical structure and ambience, and conjured memories of Sviatoslav Richter who performed and recorded the work frequently. In the second movement, Largo, Grosvenor focused on the cool melody in A-flat major, underscoring its similarity to the middle section (D-flat major) of Chopin’s Funeral March from the Sonata No. 2. In the final movement, Rondo: Allegro, both Shelley and Grosvenor emphasized the dance-like rhythms of the main subject and how this material seems to anticipate Schumann and Tchaikovsky in their piano and orchestral writing some decades later. This finale is almost a scherzo and rondo combined, which the performance communicated beautifully.

The evening had commenced with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, with the orchestra pared down to eleven players, effectively a facsimile of the kind of ensemble which would have performed the work when it was new almost three centuries ago. The playing was always measured and precise, though Shelley evoked a relaxed, even casual mood which further invoked a small court orchestra in Berlin so long ago, and was a contrast to past NACO performances, as far back as 1978 under the baton of Karl Richter.

After intermission Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird completed the evening and, again, was a striking contrast to the two preceding works. The clarity and finesse which are hallmarks for Shelley (and were on impressive display for his Salute to Shakespeare evening last November) of course continued, and was further telegraphed by exceptional solo work from several players. However, there was a lush sensuality which Stravinsky’s score demands – The Firebird, even with its penultimate “Danse infernale”, is a much less brutalist work than the composer’s better known Rite of Spring.

This rich performance was a stunning conclusion to one of NACO’s absolute best performances from the 2014-2015 season.

Charles Pope Jr.



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