Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pressler at 87: Imprecise, but Passionate

Pressler at 87: Imprecise, but Passionate

By Tom Wachunas

While there was nothing particularly ‘Christmasy’ about the program offered by the Canton Symphony Orchestra on December 4, the atmosphere in Umstattd Hall felt nonetheless distinctly festive and anticipatory of something very special. That would be, of course, the return of legendary pianist Menahem Pressler, last heard here in October, 2009, when his performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 was met with thunderous adulation.

And so it was that the first work on the program – Mozart’s Overture to Abduction from the Seraglio – was a rollicking call to attention, replete with joyous bursts of cymbals, triangle, and drums. It’s a scintillating, rambunctious piece, and the orchestra rose to the occasion with cheerful panache. In retrospect, the work demonstrated the orchestra’s crisp mastery in the percussion section, and heralded the more expansive, emotionally gripping percussive scope of the evening’s final selection.

In dramatic contrast to such a brisk start, the beginning of the program’s next entry, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, seemed like a whispered message - a simple four-note piano theme quietly delivered by Menahem Pressler. In its day, such an introduction was a daring departure from standard concerto openings, and served to establish a meditative commencement of an unfolding, ornate dialogue between piano and orchestra. As Kenneth C. Viant astutely observed in his program notes, Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto is the least “demonstrative” of his five piano concertos and “…one in which inward drama is favored over outward display.”

This doesn’t mean that the contemplative nature of the work isn’t without its technical challenges for the pianist – usually in the form of repeatedly intricate, cascading arpeggios. Presslers’s physical dexterity was less than optimal here. He is, after all, in his 87th year – all the more astonishing when considering he still conducts prestigious master classes and dazzles international concert audiences. Yet even as his performing mechanics may have been uneven, such imprecisions did little to diminish Beethoven’s compelling lyricism.

This was particularly apparent in the second movement, Andante con moto. The scoring is such that the initially heavy, dark-sounding strings are ultimately subdued, through a call-and-response sequencing, by the piano’s insistent, gently plaintive articulations. Throughout the movement, and then into the vivacious finale, Pressler’s playing exuded remarkable poeticism along with his own passionate enthrallment with the music, eliciting immediate, gleeful shouts of approval and a standing ovation from many in the packed auditorium.

Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann’s delightful penchant for convivial banter with the audience was in fine form as he introduced the next work on the program – Camille Saint-Saens’ symphonic poem, Le Rouet d’Omphale (Omphale’s Spinning Wheel). He informed us that the second theme in the work had at one point become the theme music for a famous vintage radio program, and challenged anyone in the audience to identify the show. He awarded one woman a CD of his Vivaldi Four Seasons recording for correctly naming the 1930s serial drama, The Shadow.

Meanwhile, the shadowy theme in the Saint-Saens work actually represents the presence of Hercules, dressed as a woman, as he encounters Omphale, the Lydian Queen whom the gods had sentenced him to serve. The orchestra captured all the lush, subtle crescendos of this graceful work with sublime finesse, the strings stretching out Omphale’s spinning wheel thread into a single note - a high, achingly soft finale.

That ending was in turn an effective transition into the ethereal strings – conjuring dawn on a quiet sea - that began the evening’s concluding work, Claude Debussy’s evocative, powerful La Mer. Rarely have I heard a work so rich in orchestral textures, tempo variations, and fascinating timbres. This was Debussy’s monumentally ambitious and heroic interpretation of the sea in all its manifestations, visceral and airy. And I’ve never heard this orchestra so rapturously engaged in the moment – from the alternately sonorous and mellow strings and eloquent majesty of the brass, to the intensely sparkling swells of percussion and the bright, buoyant effervescence of the winds. More than just a stirring masterpiece of mimetic orchestration, this was a transcendent journey to remember.

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