Music Review: MENDELSSOHN & BEETHOVEN (Igor Levit, piano; Elim Chan, conductor; LA Philharmonic)

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by Tony Frankel on January 31, 2022

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


Along with Daniil Trifonov, pianist Igor Levit’s concerts and CDs must recall what it first felt like to encounter Gilels and Richter, two other super-talented Russian pianists who brought excitement to classical music. When I saw Mr. Levit live, one of the most striking aspects for this sensitive and strong pianist was the fascinating combination of music choices. So I was a little disheartened to find he would be playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at Disney Hall. And that’s not because of Beethoven: Levit recorded one of the greatest covers of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas ever available, turning the works into powerful, profound, freeing and transcendent Beethoven.

But honestly, the Third Symphony has less going for it melodically than just one of the sonatas. The Concerto is, as ever, an easy and enjoyable listen, but the combination of Levit’s classicism and preference for a dry staccato touch — combined with conductor Elim Chan’s passion and involvement — yielded fine results with the LA Phil. In the first movement they offered an urgent and muscular reading, with Levit always underlining the music’s muscularity rather than its delicacy, his dry touch conveying a crispness even in the more lyrical passages. The Largo may not have the hushed and dreamy quality and sensuous orchestral environment I prefer, but there was a beautiful restraint to it. The finale’s boisterous dynamism was fed by Ms. Chan (who didn’t seem interested in a forward momentum; that she left to Levit) but it was Levit’s crisp and muscular take on the runs and trills that had the patrons shouting for more.

And since Levit just released the amazing and enlightening 3-CD album DSCH, covering Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues and Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH (Shostakovich’s musical monogram using German note names), I was thrilled to hear a rarely played a charming miniature Waltz-Scherzo from Dances of The Dolls; Levit demonstrated a different side of this great Russian composer’s creativity with delicacy and love.

But speaking of a lack of melodies, welcome to the U.S. premiere of U.S. composer Elizabeth Ogonek‘s Cloudline, an undefinable, disappointing 14-minute soundscape. What fascinates me about most commissioned works such as these is the composer’s ability to orchestrate. As with many soundtracks these days, it’s mostly mood music. Here the aural creations are ever-changing like the clouds in the title: spidery strings, sudden bleating blaring brass giving way to a creepy contemplative strains, high-pitched woodwinds, percussive piano, a wood block. It’s another science fiction soundtrack with no film to guide our journey, making it very very difficult to stay on board. I’m never bored watching the great players in the LA Phil, yet my mind wandered terribly. I am not a professorial musicologist, who I assume could try to explain what we’re hearing, but orchestration alone does not a piece make when your brain can’t connect the musical dots. Ogonek, who was in the house with a fun dress of loud colorful stripes, said in an interview when Cloudline premiered with the co-commissioning BBC orchestra last August, 2021: “I think my music is usually anchored by a lyrical sensibility, an interest in narrative, subtle distortion and disorientation, playful (and sometimes not playful) moodiness, as well as juxtapositions of color and timbre.” Give a listen of the BBC’s recording and judge for yourself:

Thankfully after intermission, we not only heard Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, Italian (1833) but sensed it with Chan’s precise and automated brio that jolted us in our seats. The first movement (“Allegro vivace”) was faster than I have ever heard, darn near bordering on presto, but that never caused the players to get lost in the propulsion (good grief, the flutes alone are worth the price of admission). Even with the visceral excitement, there was great warmth, especially from the strings, in other movements. A great triumph.

LA Phil, Jenny Wong conducting
Walt Disney Concert Hall
reviewed on January 27, 2022
ends on January 30, 2022

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