by Daniel Hathaway
Poland was much in evidence at Severance Hall on Thursday evening, April 21, when Polish guest conductor Antoni Wit led The Cleveland Orchestra in Richard Wagner’s Polonia Overture and Frédéric Chopin’s f-minor piano concerto with Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki (the son of Polish parents). Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony may have been the outlier, thematically, but it ended the evening on similar notes of proud dignity.
While Poland may claim Chopin as its favorite musical son, France has almost an equal claim on the composer. Only a few weeks after the Warsaw premiere of this concerto in 1830, he decamped for Paris, never to return. Taking profit of the upward expansion of the piano keyboard and the technological innovations that made it possible to hear the instrument in large concert halls, Chopin wrote fantastically elaborate passages for the right hand that can contain more notes per square inch than the busiest moments of J.S. Bach.
Those gnat-like clouds of notes can be difficult to organize into lucid musical phrases. Under the fingers of some pianists, Chopin’s music can sound glib and insubstantial. Jan Lisiecki, only 21, isn’t one of those. His performance on Thursday was poetic and virile, full of health and vigor. Lisiecki has strong fingers. His passagework was brilliant, his melismas clear, and his trills scintillating. He displayed a fine sense of musical rhetoric in the slow movement, and his playing in the finale was rhythmic and stately.
A year younger than Thursday’s soloist when he wrote the concerto, Chopin was clearly more interested in the piano part than in the orchestra, which doesn’t have much to do but introduce the proceedings and — like the symphonic backup to a rock group — provide some musical carpeting. Wit and the Orchestra played their secondary role admirably, meeting up precisely with Lisiecki at important junctures.
The concert began with a rarity: an overture Wagner wrote during the same decade as the Chopin concerto to celebrate the revolutionary movement in Poland — and long before he acquired his distinctive musical voice. Polonia calls for five percussionists, including a pair of field drums and other military hardware. Its prominent fanfares, noble melodies, and back-and-forth volleys between brass and woodwinds add up to twenty minutes of entertaining musical bluster. Toward the end, a suspenseful flurry of strings and drum rolls introduces the first of a number of non-endings. The Orchestra, performing Polonia for the first time, gave it a brilliant reading.
Beethoven’s third symphony made headlines at its first performance for its nearly hour-long duration. Antoni Wit’s dynamic reading of the “Eroica” on Thursday evening bested that record, lasting just over an hour. While it is frequently played with a grand, breezy sweep, Wit approached the symphony as an overly familiar work whose details needed to be brought out in high relief.
That was most evident in the second-movement funeral march, where Wit’s ultra-slow tempo gave him plenty of opportunity to massage the music, but became ponderous after a while. As he did elsewhere in the work, Wit pumped up the sound, producing a huge brass climax.
The Scherzo was cheerful, yet reined in, the finale fierce at the outset, then played full-throttle. Wit held nothing back at the end, concluding an “Eroica” of epic proportions — thrilling, but perhaps a picture too big for its frame.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com May 3, 2016.
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