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Noseda Pumps up the Volume with the NSO

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Beethoven, Piano Concertos / Sonatas (inter alia), R. Lupu, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Z. Mehta
Count on us to be in the hall for any performance by the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu: one has little idea what to expect from his playing, even from phrase to phrase. If the results are not always felicitous, you will at least be surprised -- which is no mean feat in works that are often very familiar -- and from time to time you will be intoxicated by the musical sensitivity. His performance with the National Symphony Orchestra last night was less on the intoxicating side than his most recent recitals in the area, in 2009 and 2010, but as with his performance of Beethoven's first concerto, reviewed by Jens in Munich last year, it was definitely worth hearing.

Part of the problem with Lupu's performance of Beethoven's third piano concerto was dashes of technical weakness, slips heard most prominently in the first movement. The phrasing, as usual, was impeccable, and the slow movement was reverential, with a bewildering array of gradations of soft and radiant in Lupu's tone (right from the startling piano-only opening bars -- revealing the unusual choice of E major for the second movement, a surprise after the C minor conclusion of the first). Another part of the problem was the somewhat contrary and very forceful approach of the evening's guest conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, in his NSO debut. There was a reoccurring tug of war between the orchestra, Noseda, and Lupu in the concerto: as the solo sections opened or closed, Lupu often conducted with his left hand, direction that principal cellist David Hardy was more focused on at times than Noseda's beat.

Noseda seemed intent on wringing out every possible decibel of urgency from the orchestra. Having apparently spent rehearsal instructing the players to hammer every sforzando and give every phrase equal, excessive force, he practically foamed at the mouth in his gestures, a whirlwind of grinding, slamming movements. This love of speed -- very little quarter was given to tempo flexibility -- and strength of tone recalled Noseda's connection to Valery Gergiev and his time apprenticing in Russia, but it made for some very loud and fairly empty-headed renditions of the other two pieces on the program. The overture to Smetana's The Kiss -- heard here for the first time from the NSO -- was assaulted to within an inch of its not very substantial life.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Conductor Gianandrea Noseda's NSO debut: A mixed performance (Washington Post, February 11, 2011)

Andrew Patner, Skill on the podium and at the piano for CSO concert (Chicago Sun-Times, February 25, 2010)
By the second half, it was hardly a surprise that Noseda's take on Tchaikovsky's Manfred, a symphonic poem in four movements based on Lord Byron's poem, would be reminiscent of the shock-and-awe kind of Tchaikovsky heard from Lorin Maazel and others. It is a significant and arch-Romantic work, to be sure, but it does go on: all four of the movements, with the possible exception of the tender third, seem too long, and the bombast level is way over the top. One would be tempted to say that it is not heard all that often -- the NSO last played it in 1983 -- but we have reviewed performances under Yakov Kreizberg with the Munich Philharmonic in 2008 and Yuri Temirkanov with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2006. The opening theme, for bass clarinet and bassoons, was gloomy, the brass blared, the percussion walloped (one more deafening cymbal crash would have permanently damaged my hearing), and the strings oozed, with only the woodwinds a little outfoxed by the score's challenges, resulting in some oboe slips and some questionable tuning on those high chords. For all the fine effort put forward, it missed the mark.

This concert will be repeated this evening (February 12, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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