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Monday, December 12, 2011

Concert Review: The Beast-master

A Faustian afternoon with the American Symphony Orchestra 
"I once conducted a concerto THIS big." Leon Botstein leading the American Symphony Orchestra.
Photo © 2009 The American Symphony Orchestra.
Sunday's matinee concert at Carnegie Hall featured Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra doing what they do best: fearlessly leading works that you don't get to hear too often. This program paired Ferruccio Busoni's unweildy five-movement Piano Concerto with Liszt's Faust Symphony, an impressionistic setting of Goethe's poem. In an introductory program note, Dr. Botstein explained the connection, in that he saw Busoni as the logical spiritual heir to Liszt.

Busoni's lone piano concerto has never caught on with pianists or audiences. Pianists don't like playing it. Its five movements last well over an hour. The parts are both difficult and not flashy, as the composer smoothly integrated the instrument into the orchestra rather than setting it against the other instruments. It is also (to my knowledge) the only piano concerto that features a choral part at the end, which may upstage the soloist. The work seems to confound pianists, conductors, and worst of all, music critics.

Soloist Piers Lane was bold in his interpretation of this fearsome beast of a concerto. After restating the bold opening theme against a quieted orchestra, he dove into the violin-like arpeggios, racing up and down the keys and weaving sonic threads into the rich orchestral fabric. The next two movements were Italianate in character, with a steady, tolling figure in the left hand that recalls the bells from Wagner's Parsifal and warm, lyric tones from the massive orchestra.

The fourth movement is the heart of the beast, a challenge from this virtuoso composer to any would-be soloist. In this difficult Tarantella (another Italian idea from this German composer) Mr. Lane rattled off the staccato passages in impressive fashion, making both hands dance above the keys. The final chorus, sung by the men of the Collegiate Chorale, incorporated smoothly into the work's overall sound, ending with a last series of keyboard flourishes that recalled the opening movement.

Although it is only three movements, Liszt's Faust Symphony is as long as the Busoni concerto. Rather than retelling the familiar story of a medieval scholar who trades his soul for eternal youth, the work's three tone-poem like movements explore the rich inner life of Faust in the first movement and his romantic obsession with the fair Gretchen in the second. Mephistopheles is the subject of the third, which is basically a series of twisted minor-key variations on the opening. The idea is that Old Scratch is not some daemonic entity, but a dark reflection of Faust's own immortal, immoral soul.

Dr. Botstein whipped up a devilish fury in the opening Faust movement. He was helped by the ASO, which sounded like a different orchestra when playing music that actually inspires powerful, lucid music-making. The balance of forces was a little off, with the heavyweights in the brass section drowning out the strings when the main theme came roaring out of the trumpets. The second movement was better, as the violins stretched out in the long exploration of Gretchen's character.

The final Mephistopheles movement had some of the same themes as the opener, and some of the same balance problems. Still, this was a compelling argument that needs to be made: that Franz Liszt was a skilled all-around composer and not just a stunt bunny at the piano. At the close of the last movement, the chorus returned for the revised ending of the work, a setting (with the Collegiate Chorale and tenor soloist Ryan McPherson) of the Chorus Mysticus from the second part of Goethe's epic poem. Nothing exceeds like Romantic excess.

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