From Russia, New York and the Far East

 

ISO Classical Series Program No. 10

Hilbert Circle Theatre

Feb. 1-2

The far corners of the world met last weekend to produce an ecumenically pleasing Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program. We had all-Russian music conducted by a New Yorker and soloed by a young Chinese pianist. Andrew Litton made another one of his ISO podium appearances to conduct Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky — a most unusual Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony, as it turns out. Pianist Yundi Li, 25, played a brilliant Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto. And Litton launched the program with scarcely more than a fanfare: Prokofiev’s brief Overture to his very lengthy opera War and Peace (1946), after Tolstoy — as well as following WWII.

Lasting maybe a couple minutes longer that Copland’s often played “Fanfare for the Common Man,” the Prokofiev Overture connotes both a martial and a paean-of victory essence. It’s “easy” Prokofiev, with Litton seemingly conducting a victorious regiment, all in lock step.

The Russian/Soviet composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16 came from 1913, just four years after the Rachmaninoff Third’s one final, giant gasp of Romanticism. Li, whose virtuosity is breathtaking, often failed to bring out the Prokofiev tunes above the strings’ din. The performers were most successful in the brief Scherzo and in the ensuing third movement, where Li’s heavy chord work was quite controlled. Li is a gifted pianist, well in command of his notes. Is he another Lang Lang? Don’t know — we need to hear him in a concerto demanding more musicianship, as Lang Lang gave us in his appearance here a while back. In any case, Li’s solo encore (Schumann?) showed lots of virtuosity and musicianship.

For Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36, in place of two trumpets, two oboes, two bassoons, two flutes, two clarinets and four horns — as his score calls for — Litton used four of each and a fifth horn. The additional winds and one horn were mostly unobtrusive. But four trumpets screeching away at the fanfare-like opening and elsewhere gave us the blaring of a marching band, despite Litton’s claim to having them play “correspondingly softer.” Some works tolerate lots of brass; for the Tchaikovsky fourth, it’s off-putting and unnecessary.

In addition, Litton used an excessive amount of rubato in the soft passages, practically coming to a stop just before the Finale’s final flourish. This also shows all the seams in the 20-minute first movement’s structure. All that being said, however, Litton’s reading was a marvel of dynamic shaping and precise articulation (the trumpets excepted). If he had kept to the composer’s orchestration and been more metronomically meticulous, Litton might have achieved a great performance.

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