NY Sun, October 5, 2007
Beethoven: 9 Symphony, Carnegie Hall, 3 October 2007
Highlights From Lucerne
Lucerne is a town in the middle of Switzerland, and it boasts a worldfamous music festival. No less a personality than Toscanini got it started in the 1930s. And, since 2003, it has featured the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. It is this orchestra that opened Carnegie Hall's 2007–08 season on Wednesday night.

The core of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra is a group called the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The MCO is an orchestra of youngish players (though accomplished ones). And, in a nutshell, the LFO is the MCO augmented by top-notch players from elsewhere, generally in the first chairs. Both orchestras are Claudio Abbado's babies. They are spending several days at Carnegie Hall.

Unfortunately, Maestro Abbado could not make the trip, for medical reasons. He has been replaced by two conductors: David Robertson and Pierre Boulez. The former was on the podium for Wednesday night's season-opener.

The program was all-Beethoven, beginning with the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58. And the soloist was Murray Perahia, the Sephardic kid from New York who has spent his adult life in London.

It's not easy to begin this concerto, as you, the pianist, begin it alone, with a chordal passage requiring fine balance. Mr. Perahia handled this well — as he would the rest of this first movement, and the concerto at large.

In this opening movement, his playing was both masculine and refined. It was noble without being stuffy or pompous. Mr. Perahia's accents were reasonable, not jarring or extreme. (This has been a problem for him.) He was liberal with the pedal, but never unclear. The cadenza was by turns graceful and strong. Unfortunately, Mr. Perahia did some pounding here, which was completely unnecessary.

And he did something very odd at the end of the movement: He held the chords past their time — and past the orchestra — with his pedal. This added nothing, and was borderline eccentric.

As for the LFO, under Mr. Robertson, it was warm and confident. It was also a bit sloppy — as when the orchestra came back in after the cadenza. An amateurish moment, really.

Best about Mr. Perahia's handling of the middle movement, Andante con moto, was its straightforwardness. The pianist made no attempt to cute it up, or adorn it. He reminded me somewhat of Casadesus — a very good pianist to be reminded of. The orchestra was on the verge of being too bouncy, and "period"-like. Beethoven needs gravity here. But, fortunately, Mr. Robertson didn't cross the line.

In the Rondo, the orchestra was again a bit sloppy, but satisfying — satisfying in sound and style. Mr. Robertson's buildup to the cadenza, featuring a little accelerando, was powerful.

And Mr. Perahia played this movement keenly and convincingly. Now and then he was unnecessarily stern — not smiling or playful enough; too scowling. But he is entitled to his view of this score.

And, by the way, he again held the final chords past their time, and past the orchestra. We must at least give him credit for consistency.

We must give him credit, too, for a top-drawer rendering of the G-major concerto. I have heard this pianist regularly since the mid-1970s. I don't believe I had heard him play this well since the early '90s. Absent was the over-aggressiveness that has marked him for the last decade and a half. On display were the musicality and taste that made his reputation in the first place.

After intermission, we had just a trifle, a mere bagatelle: the Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125. In the opening movement, Mr. Robertson was his usual competent self: His Beethoven was both emphatic and graceful, both "vertical" and "horizontal." Every part was clear, and the sections of the orchestra were in balance.

The second movement — the scherzo — could have used far more tension, and far more excitement. And its trio was badly rushed. The slow movement was perfectly unobjectionable — well shaped, for instance. But it did not have much transport.

And the last movement? It was okay. It included some good playing, and some good conducting. Mr. Robertson did some odd things, too. For example, Beethoven's B-flat-major martial section — in which the tenor cries "Froh, Froh" — was very, very fast. Incomprehensibly so.

The vocal quartet — Melanie Diener, soprano; Anna Larsson, contralto; Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; and Reinhard Hagen, bass — was adequate. Ms. Diener had trouble singing soft and high, and Mr. Kaufmann was tight. But, again, they were adequate — and the Westminster Symphonic Choir, New York's own, sang fairly royally.

Allow me to venture something here: Maestro Robertson strikes me as a very happy, pleasant, agreeable guy. I may be off-base, but that is the impression he gives. And this was a happy, pleasant, agreeable Ninth. It had little struggle, or suffering, or profundity. The final movement was weirdly peppy, light. Someone remarked after that it sounded like Rossini, which was a dead-on, if wicked, observation.

The end of this movement, and this symphony, should bring release — a glorious, D-major release. But that did not occur, because there had been nothing to release from.

Oh, well. If Mr. Robertson is too content to conduct Beethoven's Ninth, may we all suffer from such an affliction!


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