Bamberg Symphony/Jonathan Nott at Lincoln Center – 2: Ives & Schubert – Christian Zacharias plays Beethoven

Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
The Unanswered Question
Symphony No.8 in B minor, D759 (Unfinished)

Christian Zacharias (piano)

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
Jonathan Nott

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 21 May, 2012
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

The Bamberg Symphony is one of the finest European orchestras to emerge after World War Two. Originally formed from German musicians who were forced to leave Czechoslovakia because of the infamous Beneš decrees, the ensemble developed under the leadership of such conductors as Joseph Keilberth and Eugen Jochum and currently Jonathan Nott.

Christian Zacharias. Photograph: Nicole Chuard-IddChristian Zacharias played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with dauntless command, deftness and fluidity, and with subtly of expression. Hovering over the keyboard like a master artisan, he carefully shaped each phrase with ease and agility, yet without laboriously micro-managing every nuance. Generally, the approach was rather mild-mannered and, though thoughtful, mostly straightforward. Zacharias gave the solos in the Andante an austere, almost church-like solemnity, in perfect contrast with the forceful intervention of the orchestra’s thrusting chords. Zacharias’s fleeting runs and galloping rhythms made the finale come alive with energy. Beethoven’s cadenzas were handled with elastic dexterity that combined nicely with moments of refined, yet sensitive expression. Zacharias worked well with Nott, the orchestra coordinated and in fine balance. The strings, warm and moderately bright, played with vitality. A few ragged wind entrances and raspy brass were mere distractions.

Jonathan Nott. Photograph: Priska Ketterer/TudorThe concert’s second half began with Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question. Ives creates an austere, though strangely pallid atmosphere that immediately takes us out of our everyday life to ponder ultimate questions about our existence. Strings intone a hymn in G major over soft, sustained chords. A solo trumpet poses the ‘question’ and a woodwind quartet intermittently wails an atonal response – quite disconcerting when it suddenly bursts out from the hushed serenity of the strings. Because the trumpet solo was a bit too subdued here to be fully effective, the raucous woodwinds seemed not so much an ‘answer’ as a reaction to the subdued atmosphere. It was not until the closing section that the ‘question’ came through clearly, remaining without resolution.

Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony followed without pause, as if to provide an answer to the question left lingering. Nott’s tightly formal, foursquare handling of the symphony lacked dramatic tension and sufficient power to be fully satisfying. Orchestral outbursts were overly temperate, without dynamic thrust and precision. The brass choir sounded ragged and bloated, although woodwind solos in the middle section of the Andante were nicely phrased, and the reprise of the first theme exuded warmth and repose. Antiphonal placement of the violins (with cellos and double basses behind the first violins) was well considered, serving to highlight the enhanced role of the second violins in the slow movement. But without a ‘fire in the belly’, the symphony sounded drab and inconsequential. An Entr’acte from Schubert’s music for Rosamunde was a sweetly-played encore.

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