Sparkling Show By Pianist Ivan Moravec
The soloist was more than sufficient. The St. Louis Symphony's program on Friday evening was not a spellbinder, but a performance of consummate elegance and limpid clarity by pianist Ivan Moravec raised the evening from pedestrian to memorable.
The Symphony program was a study in bright consonances, diatonic open spaces and clarity of musical purpose. Under the baton of David Loebel (substituting for the indisposed Claus Peter Flor) the orchestra performed an early Janacek Suite for String Orchestra, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 (the "Italian"). It was not a night for surprises.
Or at least not until Moravec sat down at the piano. Moravec is widely admired for his Chopin, his recordings of which are a benchmark for understated, Apollonian grace. He brought the same skills to his Beethoven playing and the result was one of those rare occasions when a soloist manages to work comfortably within the confines of a concerto while continually projecting a quiet but captivating personality.
Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 seems, at times, like the first half a heroic arch that begins with the concerto's simple, open chords in the piano, and ends not with the fourth concerto's ebullient final movement, but a good half hour later wilh the fifth concerto's Olympian transcendence. They are a pair, exploring introversion and extroversion, the limits of emotional poise and the extravagance of ultimate joy.
Moravec played only half of this grand symmetry, but it was a dramatic journey complete unto itself.
Moravec's tone is deliciously pingy; it cuts through the orchestra without being clangorous and without resorting to unnecessary fortes.
His intelligent chord voicings create the illusion that the piano draws into itself orchestral lines and then transforms them; Moravec's performance is thus strangely internal, not combative.
The drama of the second movement's stern orchestral outbursts juxtaposed with even keeled piano responses seemed a conversation in Moravec's head, not an argument between orchestra and hammered strings.
Moravec's cadenzas flirted with the bizarre, yet always returned to safe ground. They were spellbinding, woven of even trills and intertwining filigree out of which delicately placed hints at the movement's thematic material emerged more like suggestions than assertions.
The Beethoven was the highlight of the evening, the Janacek and Mendelssohn lesser pleasures. The Janacek is a diverting work, but not one immediately recognizable as Janacek to ears familiar with the composer's mature style of the 1920s. It is Mozart viewed through Tchaikovskian glasses, without the rhythmic hesitations, melodic interruptions, repeated ostinato fragments or the whole-tone harmonic flavor of his later works.
The suite flows easily in a series of six small movements, juvenilia to be sure, but juvenilia of a high order. The Symphony's strings performed with a sumptuous vibrato that occasionally crossed the line into vagaries of pitch. The principal cello, John Sant'Ambrogio, played the ardent cello solos with exquisite tone quality and phrasing.
The Mendelssohn was taken at admirable tempos, though fast enough in the first and last movements to cause some sloppiness of ensemble. Loebel conducted the work in a way that suggests descriptions of Mendelssohn's own conducting style: Clean, clear, unfussy, filled with light and grace and perhaps a tad on the breezy side. But it's a show piece, not meant to dredge the musical psyche for unwanted profundities.