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Death but no Transfiguration

10/30/2012 -  & 23 (München), 28 (Perugia) October 2012
Maurice Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin – La Valse
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, KV 467
Richard Strauss: Tod und Verklärung, op. 24

Jan Lisiecki (piano)
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR, Stéphane Denève (conductor)

J. Lisiecki (© DG/Mathias Bothor)

The Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart has always been close to my heart. While I grew up in Stuttgart, my hometown offered a wonderful concert series for young people: "Die Jugendkonzerte". These youth concerts were basically dress rehearsals of subscription series at the Stuttgart Liederhalle. In those days a Jugendkonzert ticket cost 2 German Marks, less than 1 US Dollar today. For less than a dollar a concert, I was introduced to the whole range of the symphonic repertoire. For less than a dollar I enjoyed front-row seats for world-class soloists like Rudolf Serkin, Paul Tortelier, Henryk Szering and Gundula Janowitz. Many of these concerts were played by the Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart under their charismatic Music Director Sergiu Celibidache. These "Jugendkonzerte" with the RSO Stuttgart were instrumental (pun intended) in instilling in me a deep love for classical music. I will forever be indebted to this orchestra I knew 25 years ago.

Not having heard the Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart all these years, my expectations were high when the orchestra now came to Vienna for a performance in the Jeunesse subscription series at the Konzerthaus. The paucity of students in the hall apparently meant this Jeunesse concert was for the young at heart. In any case it turned out to be a bittersweet experience for me.

Stéphane Denève, Chief Conductor in his second season with the RSO Stuttgart, opened the program with Maurice Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin. Denève and his orchestra performed this intimate gem of French orchestral music with remarkably little attention to details. Brass and woodwinds had considerable problems with intonation and ensemble.

The contentious "Stuttgart Sound" that Sir Roger Norrington had imposed on the Radio Symphony Orchestra during his tenure as Chief Conductor, was unfortunately all too apparent in Mozart's Piano Concerto C major KV 467. The strings played with no vibrato whatsoever, with an edgy sound completely devoid of any legato. The woodwinds apparently had forgotten to tune their instruments. Fortunately, the soloist, Jan Lisiecki, 17 years young, attempted a rescue of one of Mozart's most beloved piano concertos. Lisiecki, Canadian of Polish descent, displayed perfect command of his instrument and, despite his tender age, remarkable maturity. His full-bodied sound was in stark contrast to the anemic accompaniment of the orchestra. He however occasionally succumbed to the temptation of taking the marking "f" for "fast" instead of "forte". Lisiecki thanked the Viennese audience for their warm applause with an intimate rendition of Chopin's Waltz in C sharp minor op. 64/2.

Richard Strauss' tone poem Death and Transfiguration was performed after the intermission. Denève blustered through this masterpiece with scant feeling for its musical architecture and brilliance of instrumentation. The orchestra sounded completely unbalanced with shrill woodwinds and empty sounding strings. The brass played mostly loud with little differentiation. One simply cannot build up a crescendo starting from mezzoforte... Strauss’ masterpiece died a tragic death!

Ravel's La Valse, during the Celibidache era a pillar of the orchestra's repertory, concluded this unfortunate evening with the Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart. The orchestra faces an insecure future, its fusion with the Radio Orchestra in Baden-Baden already having been decided. I am going to miss the orchestra I knew 25 years ago - I am not going to miss the orchestra I heard today.

Jan Lisiecki’s Website

Wiebke Kuester



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