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Saturday, 09 February 2013 16:47

Concert review: a Vienna-inspired evening with pianist Radu Lupu and the St. Louis Symphony at Powell Hall, Friday-Sunday, February 8-10

Radu Lupu Radu Lupu www.opus3artists.com / Pekka Saarinen
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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Radu Lupu plays a genial and low-key Beethoven 4th piano concerto and David Robertson leads the orchestra in a lush Brahms “Symphony No. 2”, and it all starts with a Gemütlichkeit-filled cruise down the “Beautiful Blue Danube” of Johann Strauss, Jr. It must be another first-class evening with the St. Louis Symphony.

There was a goodly crowd at Powell Hall Friday night. The program was a solid one of Viennese classics, Maestro David Robertson was back on the podium, and the guest artist was a pianist well known to lovers of the classics, with substantial honors and a long recorded legacy. They were rewarded with a wonderfully polished evening, highlighted by that Beethoven concerto.

As Paul Schiavo points out in his program notes, the 4th concerto was not a success in Beethoven’s lifetime. It was premiered in 1808 at an absurdly long concert in a poorly heated theater with an under-rehearsed orchestra and the notoriously spiky composer at the piano. Add the fact that it’s less showy and more lyrical than Beethoven’s other concerti and you can see why the work went unappreciated until Mendelssohn revived it nearly a decade after Beethoven’s death.

Today, of course, it’s recognized as the masterpiece it is. It has always been a favorite of mine, certainly. The integration of the solo part with the orchestra is really quite seamless and the balance between light and dark couldn’t be better. The Andante con moto second movement, in particular, has always struck me as particularly dramatic, with the piano’s chorale-like melody pitted against the martial declamations from the strings.

Mr. Lupu’s performance was remarkable on multiple levels. His playing, to begin with, had that seemingly effortless grace that you find in (for example) the dancing of Fred Astaire. You know it’s darned difficult but it certainly doesn’t look that way. The keyboard just seemed to be a natural extension of his fingers. He also looked at the orchestra more than some soloists do, in my experience, even when he was playing. Soloists always have to listen carefully, of course, but Mr. Lupu seemed very sincerely engaged with his fellow musicians. He and Mr. Robertson were clearly very much in synch with each other as well, with predictably happy results.

Equally happy were the results of Mr. Robertson’s approach to Brahms’s “Symphony No. 2”, which closed the program. Brahms’s psychological state at the time of the symphony’s composition was reportedly quite happy and it was widely regarded as the most tranquil of the Brahms symphonies. Some writers have gone so far as to compare it to Beethoven’s “Pastorale.” Brahms himself, on the other hand, told his publisher “I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning” (although he may have had tongue firmly in cheek at the time).

The reality is that, to continue with the pastoral imagery, the 2nd presents a dramatic balance of clouds and sun. The lyrical first movement, the dark and dramatic second, the lilting third, and the ultimately blazing finale all add up to an irresistible 45 minutes or thereabouts of music.

Mr. Robertson and the musicians brought all of Brahms’s colors to vivid life. Mr. Robertson gave us a beautifully shaped, fully integrated reading that allowed the individual character of each movement to come through while still maintaining a through-line that led inevitably to the joyous final pages of the score.

Orchestral playing was at its usual high level here and, indeed, throughout the evening. There’s a great deal of lovely writing for the horns in the 2nd, for example, and principal Roger Kaza and fellow players Julia Erdmann, Tod Bowermaster, and Larry Strieby did it up proud. All the sections were in fine form, though.

The concert opened with a somewhat leisurely but nonetheless gratifying performance of Strauss’s ever-popular “An der schönen blauen Donau” (“On the Beautiful Blue Danube”). I’m happy to say I only occasionally had flashback images of a rotating space station.

Next on the regular calendar: David Robertson conducts an American program featuring music from Copland’s score for the film “Our Town,” John Adams’s “City Noir” (which the orchestra is recording for Nonesuch), and Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” symphony with Orli Shaham at the piano. Performances are Friday at 10:30 AM and Saturday at 8 PM, February 15 and 16. For ticket information: stlsymphony.org

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