Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, “Emperor”
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10
I attended the Toronto Symphony Orchestra press event this week, a wonderful celebration of the new season announcement, complete with antiphonal brass fanfares, press scrum with music director Peter Oundjian, and a rehearsal with former TSO music director, Günther Herbig.
The rehearsal included a crackerjack rendering of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony — many consider this symphony the greatest of the 20th Century. The rehearsal was so good, I asked for tickets to review the concert. As always, the superb staff of the orchestra came through, a difficult task with the late request and the fact the hall would be full watching one of Canada’s legendary pianists — Anton Kuerti was playing the Emperor.
More of the Beethoven later. Let’s begin with the fantastic symphony.
From the opening six note theme, Shostakovich weaves magical sounds, hair raising episodes, massive blocks of sound, virtuoso writing demanding the best from every player, and the most incredible thematic development through four brilliant movements. Günther Herbig, not a conductor I would have matched with this composer, had a very specific vision for the symphony. He was very demanding of the players — he expected and received beautifully shaped solos, extreme dynamics, and a strict adherence to his interpretation. They followed his clear beat, moving seamlessly from one amazing section to the next. Accelerandos and ritardandos were effortless, especially in the very tricky third movement.
The third movement features an extended, very difficult horn solo. It was played so beautifully by Neil Deland that the maestro blew him a kiss at the end of the movement. These moments of warm collaboration and mutual respect make all musicians very warm inside.
Sure, there were a few moments that would be retaken in a studio — some inner string writing not in sync and a few very minor solo slips, but the global vision of Herbig’s interpretation and the energy and brilliance of the orchestra make this performance a must see.
I congratulate all the players, but a few soloists and sections really distinguished themselves with world class showings — Joaquin Valdepeñas, clarinet (reminding me of the great Karl Leister’s Shostakovich 10 solos on Karajan’s two DGG recordings, finger/key pops included), Camille Watts, piccolo, Cary Ebli and his incredibly musical cor anglais playing, brilliant trumpeter Andrew McCandless and Teng Li’s viola section, one of the best I’ve heard and led by a demon violist.As for Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, The Emperor, I’ll be charitable and suggest that the great Kuerti had an off night. Much of his wonderful musicality was on show, especially in solo sections and a fantastic first movement cadenza, but his ensemble suffered for much of the Concerto. The problems were primarily in the outer movements (the first movement is especially difficult in ensemble — it’s famous as a ‘conductor’s graveyard’) — in fact, Herbig did not take his eyes of Kuerti’s hands for much of the first movement. As a conductor, my stomach was doing flips, and the phalanx of young pianists in the row in front of me showed their nerves and displeasure with head shakes, shrugs and faces in hands. A nervy night.
A standing ovation-light, was no doubt due to Kuerti’s legend. My applause was for the brave Herbig and the beautiful sounds the orchestra produced. The TSO’s resurgence in becoming downright rampant. The new season looks very exciting. But first, try and get a ticket for the Saturday show. Go for Kuerti, stay for Dimitri.