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Ionarts-at-Large: Two Concertos for the Price of One!

Kirill Gerstein & James Gaffigan in Vienna

If the Konzerthaus presents the cream of the crop among orchestras in its own orchestral cycle, the Jeunesse concert organizer—active in all of Austria but incidentally based out of the Konzerthaus—brings that second tier that has less clout with the finicky Viennese concert-goers but means no necessary decrease in quality and often a considerable increase in programming-finesse. Orchestras like the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra (on October 18th with Markus Stenz and Vilde Frang in the Korngold Violin Concerto) or, on this occasion, Gürzenich Orchestra (where Markus Stenz is music director until 2015) under its principal guest conductor James Gaffigan (on Twitter) with pianist Kirill Gerstein (who only recently knocked out a stunning Enoch Arden together with Bruno Ganz at the Konzerthaus).

The program featured to Piano Concertos-by-another-name: Richard Strauss’ difficult Burleske and Carl Maria von Weber’s bravura-pianistic (= more-difficult-sounding-than-it-is) Konzertstück. These right-before-and-right-after intermission works were bracketed by Schumann’s Genoveva Overture and his Fourth Symphony. A string of influences—Schumann influences Weber, Weber influences Strauss—and topical relations—Genoveva sees her lover part and return; ditto the dame in the Konzertstück—gave the arrangement a bit of appreciated dramaturgical backbone. Add to that that both concertos were rebellious, because-no-one-likes-them favorites of Glenn Gould which he both recorded.

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R.Strauss, Burleske et al.,
M.Argerich / C.Abbado / BPh

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C.M.v.Weber, Konzertztück et al.,
M.Pletnev / RNO

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F.Liszt, R.Schumann, O.Knussen, Sonata in B-minor et al.,

The Konzertstück sounds like it must be lovely for audience (evidently) and the performers (surmisedly) alike. As Gerstein pointed out during a pre-concert chat about the new, cleaned-up edition of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, all the big pianists of bygone days used to have the Konzertstück ready to pull out at every opportune moment that called for a little dainty flash and a bang. “But have you ever heard it live?” Indeed, I had not. Now I have. And you can really hear the story, to the point of almost-cringe-worthy, when the march-music of the returning crusaders sounds rather like a cheap toy punched out of tin: ‘Obvious’ at least, if not outright cheap.

Before it got there, the Genoveva Overture had to be sat through which the Gürzenich and Gaffigan made a distinctively pleasant affair. Because James Gaffigan is younger than I (if not by much), I think of him as “disgustingly young”—that coquettish-envious compliment I pull out reflexively at these occasions. Turns out he isn’t all that young anymore, though he was, when I was first impressed with him stepping in for an indisposed James Conlon with the Munich Philharmonic in 2009. Fastidious and with a clear and elegant beat, a confident and assured demeanor, he looks like nothing comes more naturally to him than conducting. (What a contrast!)

Kirill Gerstein (on Twitter) takes the Strauss-Anniversary quite seriously. First Enoch Arden, now the Burleske, neither standard repertoire works he can expect to play every season. All that despite Gerstein not even being a Straussian: “I just happen to find something in these pieces… and of course to be able to do Enoch Arden with someone Ganz, why wouldn’t you!” From his sensitive playing, alongside and with a well-balanced orchestra, one could never have told that he isn’t a particular Strauss-appréciateur. The work has some regularly occurring Straussianisms, but relatively few, actually, for a composer with such a recognizable idiom. Perhaps that contributes to its middling popularity and also to why it is so refreshing to hear when it does pop up on the menu. As if to pay homage to Gould, who happily embraced the work, Gerstein happily hummed along; more in tune than the Canadian master, but still to arguable benefit of the presentation. His liberal rubato let Strauss breathe, traded the music back and forth with the orchestra, all of which suited the piece well (as did the excellent piano/pianissimo solo passages) and gave it a more understated tone, rather than hearing it banged out, all athletically.

To have another symphony after these three works, which so far (if unwittingly) celebrated brevity, struck as a bit much at first. Still, it had to be done, and so the ears readied themselves for a Schuman Fourth Symphony: Shaped with oceanic movements, cohesive enough without setting new records, sounding good without sounding great, it was the kind of performance above-average enough to give the listener-with-pen neither chance to criticize nor the opportunity to trip over him or herself with joyous raving. In short: Critic’s Hell!

The swift tempi after the gorgeous-but-portentous opening were invigorating, the vigor and momentum of it uplifting, the concertmistress elegant and gorgeous-toned, with a darkish weightlessness to her playing, perfectly nimble and on-pitch. The brass was sure-footed and never blared, even in the loud bits. The zip of the finale was catchy, the whole symphony feeling much shorter than it actually is. Some achievement for a finale that is perpetually finishing up: much like a guest in the door forever saying “I must really go home now”. (Or the Duddley Moore Beethoven joke.) As it turned out, the performance was a good many notches above average, after all. Which in the case of any partnership, musical or otherwise, should be the stated aim: A few notches above average. Everything else (more) would be indecent to ask for and must simply be enjoyed when it occurs.

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