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Jonathan Biss & St. Luke’s Orchestra

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Mar 1st, 2019

Jonathan Biss left, Bernard Labadie right

Just as Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto was seminal in establishing Beethoven as a noted pianist in Vienna, when he relocated from Bonn to Vienna in 1795, where Beethoven himself performed as soloist in his first public debut in Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall. The eagerly anticipated appearance of pianist Paul Lewis was canceled due to an arm injury. Luckily, St. Luke’s Orchestra recruited pianist Jonathan Bliss as a replacement.

The concert, bracketed with Joseph Haydn pieces, opened with Haydn’s Overture to the music-drama L’isola disabitata (The Desert Island, 1779), Haydn’s tenth opera (two-acts) and written for the Esterházy court; the Overture remains noted for its sturm und drang emotion. The intensity of its performance and ferocious unity of the orchestra appeared to announce that the reformulation of The Orchestra of St. Luke’s under its new conductor Bernard Labadie was a force to be reckoned with. The first movement captured a tempest at sea, the second joyous calm sailing after the storm, then the excitement of disembarking and exploring a deserted island, all without the debilitating drama of percussion.

Beethoven’s other piano concertos are more often performed because of their greater musical intricacy, the Second Piano Concerto being chronologically speaking, his first piano concerto. Although the concerto has the reputation as being mostly an imitation of Mozart, there are small indications of a talent that will move beyond Mozart. The principal reasons this concerto continues to be performed are: it remains delightful and that it continues to be a performer’s showcase. While Martha Argerich concentrated on varying dynamic volume on the keys in her recording, Johnathan Biss, who played by memory offered a more sophisticated approach by unearthing the humor of the work, especially in the last movement.

The decidedly Mozartian first B-flat movement (subsequently one of Beethoven’s favorite keys) with double sonata format highlights refined dexterity in the upper register, which Biss accomplished with an ease that makes the difficult appear almost easy. The slower tempo of the middle movement in subdominant E-flat major announces a more introspective turn that will be prophetic of Beethoven’s development and here Biss displayed not only fluent dynamics, but prescient Romantic lyricism in slower tempo that let emotion drip from each key struck. The third, more grandiose, movement displays Beethoven as consummate showman, both in orchestration and the piano that articulated such manic, irrepressible wit. What Biss singularly caught was the effervescent lightness of the piano concerto. Biss is nearly finished recording for ONYX CLASSICS the complete sonatas of Beethoven, the eighth of nine discs arriving next month.

Soprano Ying Fang, a regular graced with large repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera, sang “Non temer, amato bene" (Will I forget you? ... Fear not, beloved), a Mozart variant from his opera Idomeneo, which is usually not present in recordings. This revised variant was for a private performance at Prince Auersperg's palace in Vienna. Throughout the rondò there is a considerable amount of coloratura and sustained high notes which Ying Fang delivered with svelte natural ease as strings accompanied her.

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s under the baton of  Bernard Labadie performed Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, nicknamed “Farewell.” This was the only 18th century symphony written in F-minor. Its nickname comes from the last of the four movements whereby musicians gradually leave the orchestra, leaving two violins to plead for release of the musicians to return home from Prince Esterházy’s court.

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s ably incarnated the furioso quality of the opening Allegro in ¾ time, aptly capturing the pageant and plangent atmosphere of the second movement slow Adagio. The cadence of the third movement Minuet remains peculiar with its dramatically weak third beat, as if to explain that the long summer of musical service exhibits an emotional weakness in the lives of the musicians who miss their families. The concluding Presto offers the dramatic scene of the musicians departing two by two, three by three, and one by one. The sudden matter-of-fact departure of the conductor evoked audible laughter. The Prince certainly received the message and forthrightly dismissed the musicians for summer leave. Personnel of the Orchestra deftly enacted this unusual minimalist drama in the shadows with exquisite pathos and panache, which was preceded by that sprightly, attractive tempo which made Haydn’s appeal so irresistible.

In addition to Labadie’s talents as a superb conductor, it is now apparent that he has the incisive ability to construct lively and attractive programs that freight nuance and delight for The Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Next April 18 at Carnegie Hall The Orchestra of St. Luke’s will feature pianist Hélène Grimaud with a program of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1; Ravel, Piano Concerto in G major; Stravinsky, Suite No. 1 for Small Orchestra; Haydn, Symphony No 103, “Drumroll.”