Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Luisi in New York I – Beethoven 7 – Lise de la Salle plays Rachmaninov

Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Lise de la Salle (piano)

Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Fabio Luisi

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 13 November, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Fabio LuisiThe venerable Vienna Philharmonic has some serious hometown competition: world-class serious. Fabio Luisi is no stranger to New York thanks to his appointment as Principal Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. He is also Music Director of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, which shares the sonic characteristics of the city’s more acclaimed orchestra, but has an even wider dynamic range and no hesitation about incisive articulation and accents.

Lise de la Salle. Photograph: Stéphane GalloisLuisi and the VSO accommodated Lise de la Salle’s extreme rubato and particularly deliberate tempos for the first and second movements: the ‘tolling bell’ chords with which the piano opens the concerto were taken at an extremely slow pace: emblematic of her paucity of subtlety or even basic tone-painting or voicing; every note was there, but not much of the music itself. Fortissimo passages were sledge-hammered; refinement of phrasing was replaced by gratuitous rubato, and long lines substituted by torrents of eighth- and sixteenth-notes delivered like technical studies. The pianist’s encore, ‘Des pas sur la neige’ from Book I of Debussy’s Préludes was similarly devoid of poetry or mood. Orchestrally things were better; the sonority of the lower strings was particularly impressive – not too dark, but also not as brilliant as that of other orchestras. Balances in the most thickly scored sections were transparent, and Luisi successfully avoided allowing the first movement to lapse into lugubriousness.

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony enjoyed warm, full sound, the opening bars quickly yielding to what may be the jolliest rendition of the slow introduction, leading into a first movement that was not merely a reminder of Wagner’s description of this symphony being the “apotheosis of the dance” but more song-like than I can recall. The Allegretto was taken at a deliberate tempo but never lacked forward momentum, Luisi’s sense for the prolonged line and musical gesture making the crescendo with which the repeated main theme builds and then yields to the cantabile second figure a thrill – voiced beautifully lent welcome freshness to this familiar music. The scherzo’s main theme maintained lightness even in the loudest passages, Luisi opting for a more moderate tempo in the trio – and balances that brought vivid contrast between the harmonie and strings. Luisi took the finale at a rapid clip, boldly building up the goose-bump factor from down-beat to coda; the orchestra navigated the sudden contrasts in dynamics and timbre with devil-may-care ease, without exaggeration or forcing. All repeats were observed.

There were two encores. Mozart’s Overture to Le nozze di Figaro was all merriment and mischief, followed by a thrilling performance of Johann Strauss II’s Thunder and Lightning Polka with at least as much panache and polish as the ‘other’ Vienna orchestra!

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