A Weekend Luxuriating in Viennese Musical Pleasures

United StatesUnited States Strauss II,  Beethoven, Beethoven/Mahler, and Gruber: Jan Lisiecki (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 16.1.2016 (BJ)

United StatesUnited States Curtis Presents–Eric Owens and Friends: Kirsten MacKinnon (soprano), Lauren Eberwein (mezzo-soprano), Evan LeRoy Johnson (tenor), Eric Owens and Vartan Gabrielian (bass-baritones), Mikael Eliasen and Danielle Orlando (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 17.1.2016 (BJ)

Strauss II,  Beethoven, Beethoven/Mahler, and Gruber:

Strauss II: Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald, Waltz, Op. 325
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
Beethoven, arr. Mahler: String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95, Serioso
Gruber: Charivari

Curtis Presents–Eric Owens and Friends:

Weill: Lost in the Stars
Cornelius: Scheiden, Op. 16 No. 4
Tchaikovsky: Tears, Op. 46 No. 3
Mendelssohn: Ich wollt’, meine Lieb’ ergösse sich, Op. 63 No. 1
Karl Böhm (1844-1920): Still wie die Nacht, Op. 326 No. 27
Rossini: Salve Regina
Brahms: Vier Ernste Gesänge, Op. 121; Liebeslieder-Walzer, Op. 52
Kern: Ol’ Man River, from Show Boat
Rodgers: Some Enchanted Evening, from South Pacific
anon.: Deep River

To my perhaps idiosyncratic personal taste, a survey of the music of Vienna that predictably embraces such masters as Beethoven and Brahms is all the more alluring if, in addition to the well-established Second Viennese School, it pays as much attention to what is sometimes called the Third Viennese School.

In the Philadelphia Orchestra’s current three-week “Music of Vienna” series, the grouping of Schoenberg and his pupils is represented only minimally and tangentially by Im Sommerwind, which Webern wrote before he had even met the man who was to be his teacher. But the Third School made a welcome appearance on this opening program with the highly entertaining “Austrian journal for orchestra,” Charivari, HK Gruber’s subversively brilliant take on Johann Strauss II’s Perpetuum Mobile Polka.

Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin ingeniously book-ended the evening with a seductive opening performance of Strauss’s Tales from the Vienna Woods echoed, after the Gruber, by an encore in the shape of that Perpetuum Mobile. It followed an account of Charivari that realized all of the composer’s extraordinarily imaginative and effective orchestral effects, while allowing the more seditious undercurrents of the music due expression.

Such high jinks were counterbalanced by the two serious central works on the program. Well as it was played, Mahler’s string-orchestra version of Beethoven’s saturnine F-minor Quartet offered an instructive rather than a strictly satisfying experience. The arrangement neatly reverses the old saw about less being more. “More” in the number of performers is here distinctly less in musical effect: in particular, the nagging descending figure in the slow movement that Beethoven assigned to the cello loses all its character when played by a whole orchestral cello section, rather than by a solo instrument.

Much more enjoyable was the evening’s performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Coming just four months after the 21-year-old pianist-composer Conrad Tao made his local debut with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, it introduced an even younger performer of equally compelling pianistic gifts, the 20-year-old Canadian Jan Lisiecki. His combination of keyboard fluency with discretion in pedaling was augmented by an imaginative yet never self-indulgent willingness to seek out fresh and unfamiliar angles in so familiar a score. This is another talent of enormous promise and already powerful achievement. It was indeed refreshing to contrast Lisiecki’s unforced grace and eloquence—and the sheer naturalness of his interaction with conductor, orchestra, and audience—with the sort of grossly egoistic self-celebratory airs that have largely extinguished such promise in another (still young) pianist too well known to need naming here.

The orchestra’s contribution under Nézet-Séguin’s impassioned leadership was not only similarly fresh but also illuminating in more than one particular. While many double-stopped string chords in the fast movements were allowed to resonate, instead of being too rapidly bitten off in a manner more suitable for French than Austro-German music, the opening orchestral measures of the central Andante con moto were played extremely short. The effect was faithful both to the notation of the score and to its presumed representation of Orpheus’s taming of the Furies. I was only a little disappointed, later in the movement, when the Furies’ capitulation came with a rather too sudden turn from forte to piano. The most enchanting representation I have heard of this deeply moving peripeteia came with the subtle transitional chord that Martin Turnovský drew from the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in the late Ivan Moravec’s ancient and still unsurpassed Connoisseur Society recording of the concerto.

Apparently by a happy accident, the latest program in the Curtis Institute’s “Curtis Presents” series fitted very opportunely into the environment of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s “Music of Vienna” survey and its opening Johann-Strauss-related weekend. We heard not only the Brahms of the Four Serious Songs, but also the Brahms who adored the music of the Waltz King and made his own contribution to the repertoire of the dance with the irresistible Liebeslieder-Walzer for vocal quartet and piano duet.

Framed by a number of other songs, the Brahmsian core of the program brought superb performances by “Eric Owens and Friends.” Owens himself was in majestic form, the voice in splendid estate and with all its size still flexible, the expression and musical insight unfailing. Moreover, his Ol’ Man River and Deep River were good enough to awaken, if not necessarily to overshadow, memories of the great Paul Robeson. It is such a pleasure to see and hear in Owens a singer who, without any kind of affectation or self-advertising gestures, plants his feet firmly on the floor and just sings, the way I remember hearing Thomas Hampson prescribe at a Curtis master-class some years ago.

The “Friends” of the afternoon, too, rose nobly to the occasion. Lauren Eberwein, already impressive as the Composer in (the other) Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos last March, has made notable vocal strides since then. Her three colleagues in this program maintained a similar level of technique and musicianship, and tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson fashioned a beguiling performance of my personal favorite love-song waltz, Nicht wandle, mein Licht, with its characteristically Brahmsian cross accents. Mikael Eliasen, artistic director of the Curtis Opera Theatre, provided expert support at the piano throughout the afternoon, and he was joined for Liebeslieder-Walzer by the Institute’s principal opera coach, Danielle Orlando, in a vivid account of the piano-duet part.

Bernard Jacobson

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