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Powerful Requiem… Idiosyncratic Concerto

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
02/10/2016 -  & February 11, 2016
Johannes Brahms: Nänie, Op. 82 – A German Requiem, Op. 45
Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54

Jessica Rivera (soprano), James Westman (baritone), Jan Lisiecki (piano)
Ottawa Choral Society, Ottawa Festival Chorus, Cantata Singers of Ottawa, Ewashko Singers, Capital Chamber Choir, Duain Wolfe (chorus master), Laurence Ewashko (assistant chorus master)
National Arts Centre Orchestra, Alexander Shelley (conductor)

Alexander Shelley returned to the podium of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) this week for a demanding program which encompassed not one but two major choral works of Brahms as well as Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Canada’s fair-haired boy of the keyboard, Jan Lisiecki, replacing an indisposed Alice Sara Ott. The choice was felicitous as Lisiecki, at the ripe age of twenty, has been performing this Concerto for some time, including his New York Philharmonic debut in December, 2012, and a more recent recording for Deutsche Grammophon, released four weeks ago.

The pianist’s approach to the work is unusual and features the idiosyncratic transparency he brought to Mozart’s “Coronation” Concerto with NACO and Pinchas Zukerman last June. Of course, Schumann is not Mozart and Lisiecki readily delivers big sound when needed and does so without banging. At the same time, delicacy was the operative word for most of this performance and Lisiecki projected beautifully – his sound can be spare, but is never dry. The sonic balance with the orchestra was well maintained under Shelley’s judicious conducting, though there were stretches, especially in the final movement, when the pianist seemed to want to play faster than the orchestra would accommodate (however, the string accompaniment during the second movement was particularly fine). Overall, this was a rewarding and often beautiful performance, and I’m guessing the Thursday evening repeat may go more smoothly.

The concert had opened with Brahms’ single movement Nänie which, despite sometimes slightly forward brass, got off to an immediate, warm start --- and it’s worth noting that the opening phrase is markedly similar to the first movement’s main theme for the Schumann Concerto which was performed next. The choral forces sang with clarity and with well-judged projection.

The evening’s major work was Brahms’ German Requiem. Like all the composer’s larger works, this one is structurally rooted in the Classical era yet deals with subjects (and some, if not all texts) which are closer to the Romantic era. The composer’s earliest material for the Requiem is believed rooted in Brahms’ grief over the death of his friend and mentor, Robert Schumann. The start of the work’s first movement anticipates both Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Indeed, from a more abstract perspective the Requiem seems to anticipate Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “The Ressurection” at more than one juncture.

For the most part, maestro Shelley did a commendable job of uniting his performing forces (five choirs as well as two excellent vocal soloists) and the Requiem built effectively to a huge climax in the penultimate sixth movement which begins as if the music (and its listeners) may be wandering towards a new world. The choral writing seems an affirmation of this, and eventually becomes increasingly contrapuntal while the orchestral writing is immensely detailed and vigorous. The final movement, which functions more as a coda than a finale brings one of Brahms’ most ambitious creations to a fine conclusion.

The orchestra’s playing was consistently highly finished, if not quite at the level Alexander Shelley has obtained on some past occasions, notably his performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 which opened NACO’s current season last September. However, Mr. Shelley obtained arguably the best work heard in recent years from the massed choral forces, and this resulted in a powerful performance which left listeners eager to hear what Shelley will deliver for his next, big choral performance.

Charles Pope Jr.



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