The Philadelphia Orchestra brings Vienna to Carnegie Hall

By Raymond Beegle
Published: 1/21/2016

Pianist Jan Lisiecki

Pianist Jan Lisiecki

The Philadelphia Orchestra. Yannick Nézet Séguin, Conductor. Jan Lisiecki, Piano. Carnegie Hall, 1/14/2016
JOHANN STRAUSS JR. Tales from the Vienna Woods, LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, HK GRUBER Charivari, an Austrian Journal for Orchestra.

The Philadelphia Orchestra presented a strangely disparate assortment of “works from Vienna” at Carnegie Hall last night. The opening Tales from the Vienna Woods, which might have been a suitable encore, was not an entirely satisfactory antecedent to the two monumental Beethoven pieces that followed, and although musicians and conductor tried their best to breathe life into this waltz favorite the result was a slightly tenuous, slightly tentative, self-conscious, perhaps slightly under-rehearsed performance that did no favors to Strauss, to Beethoven, or to the audience.

The first unaccompanied chords of the Fourth Piano Concerto however, seemed to have a transforming effect on every person on and off stage. Jan Lisiecki set a spellbinding standard of artistry and technical excellence, which ignited the orchestra and revealed the depth and breadth of this heroic work.  Although there might be a gymnast or two who could articulate the turns in the first phrases of the rondo a little more clearly, this young pianist proved himself to be a formidable artist, profound beyond his years, who stands among the best interpreters before the public today. Allegro tells one about virtuosity, and certainly Lisiecki is a virtuoso, but the slower movements are the ultimate test of a musician’s depth. In the andante con moto he appeared to forget himself and the public, and attended to the truth of the music. “The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy;” wrote Willa Cather. “Only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is.”  As the brilliance and élan of the orchestra’s accompaniment found its source in the soloist rather than in the conductor, Maestro Seguin’s virtues only became evident in Mahler’s arrangement of Beethoven’s 11th quartet where the suppleness and unity of all four string divisi were nothing short of stunning. The traditionally celebrated strings of the Philadelphia Orchestra rang out brilliantly recalling the past days of Ormandy and Muti, and although Mahler, who wrote no string quartets, transmogrified this intimate and introspective work into a grandiose, larger than life image of itself, Séguin gave the arrangement a credible, and ultimately electrifying dramatic personality of its own.

The Austrian composer HK Gruber proved to be his own best critic in titling his piece “Charivari,” which the dictionary tells us is “a mock serenade of discordant noises.” The orchestra dutifully produced the notes on the stands in front of them to considerable effect, but their skill merited a greater subject than this hustling bustling series of phrases that didn’t seem to have any direction or carry any message, other than that the new Vienna falls short of the old. 

Raymond Beegle reviews classical music and opera for the New York Observer and Fanfare Magazine. For many years he was Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese.  Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.