Orchestra of St. Luke’s – Heras-Casado Debut at Carnegie Hall

Last night I attended the Orchestra of St. Luke’s subscription concert at Carnegie Hall.  Pablo Heras-Casado was making his first appearance at Carnegie Hall as principal conductor of the orchestra.  Christian Zacharias was the piano soloist in Chopin’s Concerto No. 2, Op. 21.  The program began with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, and continued after intermission with Hans Zender’s orchestration of five piano preludes by Debussy, concluding with the original 1841 version of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 120.

I had previously attended a concert conducted by Maestro Heras-Casado at the Lincoln Center Mostly Mozart festival, and enjoyed his conducting, so I was looking forward to this.  He began the Egmont Overture with a more vigorous attack of the opening chords than I have heard in the past, and the entire performance was intensely dramatic, urgently forward-moving, whipping up quite a frenzy in the final section.  He had the orchestra playing with great precision and color.

The Chopin, I thought, provided quite a contrast.  I have enjoyed Christian Zacharias’s playing in the past, but I did not find him particularly inspired last night.  Technically his performance was superb, but I found it to be a bit subdued, quite a letdown after the dramatic Beethoven opening.  The Chopin piano concerti are early efforts by the teenage composer, sounding a bit like late-classical period piano sonatas with a surrounding of orchestral music of secondary importance.  (Indeed, I’ve heard recordings of one or the other Chopin concerto without the orchestra or with just a string quartet accompaniment, leaving the impression that the orchestra, apart from the first movement introductions, is not all that important in the scheme of things.)  Zacharias’s playing was very fluent, very smooth, lacking in dramatic highs — or at least this was my impression.  I found it hard to focus my attention on it.

Things were quite different after intermission.  Zender’s Debussy arrangements, said to be receiving their U.S. premiere on this concert, are almost cartoonish in their bright, primary colors, and he employs some unusual instruments, including the “musical saw”, to create odd sonic effect.  The harmonic language remains distinctly Debussyian, but the soundworld of these arrangements goes beyond Debussy without sounding unduly modernistic.  The orchestra played with sparkling finesse, and Heras-Casado showed a tender side, an ability to secure light, agile playing, that contrasted with his opening Beethoven.

Heras-Casado chose to end the program with Schumann’s original version of what was finally published as his 4th Symphony.  According to the program notes, Schumann shelved the piece after a “disastrous performance” and let it sit in the drawer for ten years, coming back to rework it after having written what are now known as his second and third symphonies.  The revised version from 1851 is the one that was published and absorbed into the standard orchestral repertory.  Hearing the original struck me as akin to hearing a “parody” of the familiar piece.  I think Schumann was wise to revise it.  The original first movement has a clunky transition from the introduction to the main allegro, and the orchestration is ineffective in spots.  The same might be said of the other movements, where there were some unfamiliar chord progressions, awkwardly orchestrated moments, and strange dynamics.  To someone who knows the standard version of this piece well, the experience of hearing this original version is like a trip to the funhouse with those odd mirrors that distort your image.  I certainly think it is worth taking this version our for a spin now and then, but I think the revised version — which incorporates the lessons Schumann learned in writing the next two symphonies — is entitled to its status as the preferred version.

One of the difficulties in judging the work in this version is that, never having heard Heras-Casado conduct the revised version, I found it hard to separate out the inherent scoring differences from possible interpretive differences from the performances I know by this conductor.  To judge by his Beethoven conducting in Egmont, one might not be surprised at some of the phrasing and dynamic decisions that the conductor made in the Schumann, departing from the performing tradition.  But how much of that was the conductor’s own view of this music, and how much was faithfulness to the earlier score?  Impossible to judge without comparing the scores side by side.

That said, the performance was superb.  The orchestra was charged-up, fully-engaged, and producing a bigger sound than one might expect from a slightly oversized chamber orchestra (12 first violins, 10 second, and on down the line for the strings).  One must presume that the conductor was getting the performance he asked for, making no attempt to hide or play down the gauche aspects of the original score.  At times it was quite exhilarating, and interesting to discover an old friend in a new dress, quashing the revised version’s resemblance — at least as to the “sound world” of the piece — to the third symphony, which is so pronounced in the revised edition.

So, while I would prefer the composer’s final thoughts on the 4th, this performance of the original version gave a fascinating aural glimpse into the composer’s workshop.  It was claimed as a Carnegie Hall premiere of this version of the piece.

On balance, this was an excellent debut concert for Heras-Casado.  I hope he’s back again soon with this orchestra.

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