The Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Jakub Hrůša (guest conductor) and Jan Lisiecki (piano) at Roy Thomson Hall. Feb. 15.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra has welcomed two younger-than-average visitors this week: pianist Jan Lisiecki, 21, and conductor Jakub Hrůša, 36. On Wednesday they chose to leave the metronome backstage and give the substantial crowd in Roy Thomson Hall a dose of old-fashioned romanticism.
The concerto offering, placed at the opening of the second half between two hefty symphonic poems, was Schumann’s for piano. This great work of 1845 is seldom heard in competitions, as its difficulties are more oriented to interior values than bravura.
Which might explain why Lisiecki has embraced it. Even with the dreamily prolonged second chord of the main theme, the Calgary native communicated a personal relationship with the score. The first-movement cadenza was wonderfully free and poetic.
Eighth-note patterns emerged distinctly, and not a note sounded superfluous. Hrůša, a Czech maestro of straightforward and symmetrical gestures, drew a reciprocally affectionate accompaniment from the TSO winds. Despite or because of the aura of spontaneity, the structure of the music was entirely clear. One could understand the intrusive applause.
The middle movement was both delicate and engaging, a tough combination. If Hrůša stretched the cello sequence rather liberally, the effect was in keeping with the overall interpretation. Again in the finale, we could appreciate piano rippling that was lyrical rather than routine. This was a complete performance.
Tall, lanky and patently sincere as he bowed to the crowd and the orchestra, Lisiecki got a big enough hand to justify a solo encore. Schumann’s Träumerei should not be quite so hushed and drawn out, but this was, as I say, a romantic (and Romantic) evening.
Romantic early and late: in the first half we heard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration of 1890. Rather than trace its surface highs and lows, Hrůša got into the narrative of the piece, which recounts the death throes of a heroically-minded artist.
The irregular heartbeat of the opening (as established by the second violins and violas) was strikingly realistic. If all that rubato in the more extrovert sections came at a cost in precise ensemble, the apotheosis was suitably uplifting. Violins sounded a bit glassy at fortissimo. Perhaps there will be a gain in both warmth and exactitude in the repeat concert on Thursday.
Similar things could be said at the end of the evening about Scriabin’s Le Poème de l’extase of 1908, a work that attempts to make up in rapture and amplitude (eight horns and a big battery of percussion) what it lacks in coherence. I would have preferred faster tempos in the first half, but the grandiose conclusion, with organ, harps and bells all fully engaged, was certainly worth the wait. Andrew McCandless was the assured principal trumpet.
The program opened with a two-minute Sesquie fanfare by John Rea. Timpani rolls and trumpet flourishes of the 20th Century Fox variety were nicely counterpoised by more dissonant doings in the strings.
To judge by the veteran Montreal composer’s program note, the unusual title, Survivance, is intended to reference the durability of Aboriginals, French Canadians and Canada overall. Adding to the sesquicentennial spirit were pre-concert announcements given in English and French.
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