Schubert: 4.5 stars
Brahms: 3 stars
ISO music director Krzysztof Urbański is nothing if not an experimenter. First he features the same soloist—Dejan Lazic—to return for two weekends in a row to play the succession of the two Brahms piano concertos. Then this Friday he has his first and second violins switch positions on the stage—an unprecedented orchestral layout (in my experience). He was reportedly experimenting with "balance." The result was a softer string sound from the stage's left side, most obvious in the program opener, Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in B Minor ("Unfinished"), D. 759.
Before I dwell too strongly on the soft violin sounds, and they were too soft, I must exclaim that Urbański's conception and execution of Schubert's supreme two-movement masterpiece was itself supremely excellent. Using an up-tempo in both movements, his orchestra undergirded its sublime lyricism with propulsive drama, creating a Gestalt with both elements. Most "Unfinished" performances are taken at a dawdling pace, compromising the contents of these two musically densest movements in symphonic literature. The opening oboe-clarinet duo ushered in the first use of that timbre (that I'm aware of) in music history; it was excellently rendered by principal oboist Jennifer Christen and principal clarinetist David Bellman.
A comparison of Brahms' two piano concertos shows likenesses and contrast. Both are large-scale, all-but-symphonic masterworks, with an optimum balance between the players and the soloist. But Brahms 1 followed the classical style much more closely, with its long orchestral intro. His Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 83, unusually has four movements, its sublime Andante uses a cello obligato—well played by new principal Austin Huntington—trading "thoughts" with pianist Dejan Lazic.
Regrettably I must take exception to Lazic's touch, which was too loud, bringing his Steinway almost to the point of banging. Not everywhere, mind you, but in his cascading octaves and chords. In some passages he completely covered the second violins, now so close to him. But his technique was solid; he knew what he wanted from his instrument, and he got it. I just didn't care for his domination of the orchestra.