Ives and Beethoven, with Bavouzet’s Agile Fingers in Between

United StatesUnited States Ives, Bartók, Beethoven: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Ludovic Morlot (conductor). Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA. 14.2.2016. (RC)

Ives: Three Places in New England

Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”

The recent subscription concert of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra at Benaroya Hall was a many splendid affair—well-known composers and some of their most famous works, first-class playing from the ensemble, and a superb pianist whose musicality matched his agile fingers.

After 100 years or so, Three Places in New England can still shock with its juxtapositions—harmonies and rhythms that can still jar one’s sensibilities. (Those who find Ives still hard to digest could have arrived late and missed the whole thing, tucking themselves into seats just before the Bartók.) Ludovic Morlot, the orchestra’s music director, likes Ives’ music and makes no attempt to soften the hard edges. The French conductor obviously takes pleasure in the touches of Americana of which Ives was so fond, and the orchestra was at its most incisive.

Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto is the most performed of the composer’s three piano concertos—with good reason—and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet demonstrated why. The work is essentially lyrical and if you will, conservative—a far cry from the percussive reality of the first two. That is exactly how the French pianist approached it: expansive, beautifully realized, but never lacking in virtuosity. This was music-making that was controlled but seemingly spontaneous and on occasion, electrifying. Little wonder that the capacity audience jumped to its feet at the end. I can’t remember a performance so completely satisfying; it was the first of an all-Bartók piano concerto cycle the orchestra will be presenting over the next couple of years.

The “Eroica” Symphony is a work of genius, one of the great hallmarks of the symphonic literature—not only for its “scale and power,” to borrow an apt phrase from Paul Schiavo’s excellent program notes, but for its dramatic beauty and profound appeal. Morlot gave a life-affirming reading, conceived with a balance of tempos and dynamic levels. Beethoven’s masterpiece is often programmed, but not always played with such distinction.

Richard Campbell

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