Too bad for any ticketholders who stayed home from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concerts last weekend when they heard pianist André Watts was recovering from medical treatment. While it is true that Watts, an audience favorite, was missing from center stage, guest conductor Fabio Luisi, a virtuoso from France, still provided a powerful interpretation of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in G major.
Anyone expecting “second best” from pianist Lise de la Salle was sure to be surprised. Ms. de la Salle, not yet 30 and an emerging international star, performed this difficult concerto with mastery, self-confidence, and a depth of interpretative understanding. Beethoven himself was only in his early to mid-30s when he composed this work, which had its public debut in a “monster concert” in 1808 along with the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the Mass in C, and the Choral Fantasy.
Looking a bit like Peter Cushing, trim and good-natured, Luisi emphasized the classical nature of this bold concerto, which starts right out with a piano solo and ends with a presto that rockets out of an already exhilarating vivace. Under his baton, the work was gripping without being sentimental or blustery, a gentle giant on the cusp of the Romantic revolution.
Partners in power
Through three arresting movements, including the provocative dialogue between piano and orchestra in movement two, de la Salle was an unyielding presence in partnership with the orchestra, at times as powerful as or greater than the sea of instruments around her. Yet her playing retained balance and poise, and could recede into subtle whispers of tenderness. Her clear, bright tone rang out firmly in the upper registers, and stepped aside to allow the orchestra expression of its own voice. She navigated the blistering first-movement cadenza with grace bordering on ferocity, a rare but winning combination.
Overall, the pacing was excellent -- though the third movement was a bit too quick for my taste, undercutting the impact of that delightful presto, a burst of acceleration fewer than 50 bars from and through the end. But one would have to search to find a contemporary take on the Fourth with such scope and warmth of heart. Many cheers for Lise de la Salle; we hope to hear her here again.
The concerto fell between two other staples of the classical repertoire. The concert began with Weber’s popular Overture to Oberon, another early Romantic work, inspired by the tales of fairyland so beloved by early 19th-century artists. The Overture to Oberon (named for the fairy king in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) emerges bright and vigorous from the soft darkness of its opening strains. Luisi led the ensemble in a performance that was rousing but measured, bringing out a world of feeling (sweet melodies; crisp marches, solos, and tutti) that make this curtain-raiser a little symphony compressed into ten minutes.
The concert ended with Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor. In the late 19th century, when Franck composed this work, French musicians and critics viewed the symphony largely as a German form. Some thought Franck was deserting his French roots, a dangerous path in a time of rising nationalism. The work has survived musicology and politics, though it is arguably less popular today than it was in the middle of the 20th century, when it frequently found its way into record collections of the “50 Great Moments in Music” ilk.
The work can be majestic and generically inspiring (one is inspired, but is not quite sure by what). It does showcase the orchestra, its sections, and soloists to their best advantage, and -- under the baton of a fine conductor like Luisi -- yields treasures locked away by previous renditions or by neglect. Lush, if a bit dated, the work bubbles along with the thick, creamy consistency of a rich porridge.
Luisi conducted with a sure hand, extracting every ounce of sweetness from the orchestra without once becoming too saccharine. I have not listened to this work in many years and feel drawn to it now, as to comfort food, in a world where so many elements—bitter weather, politics, injustice—seek to weary our nerves and rumple our serenity.