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EMF's Heady Russian-Beethoven Musical Sandwich

by William Thomas Walker

June 30, 2007, Greensboro, NC: The Dana Auditorium audience certainly did not hear a single dull note during the second Saturday concert featuring the all-faculty Eastern Philharmonic. This is the summer for all of Beethoven's piano concertos at the Eastern Music Festival. Last week's "trifecta" of concertos 2-4 was followed by the composer's nominal First Piano Concerto, sandwiched by core music from the Russian Romantic repertory. The guest conductor was Stephan Sanderling, whom Triangle music lovers may remember as one of the five (I was tempted to pun in this Russian context — "Mighty Five") strongest candidates for directorship of the North Carolina Symphony. He accepted leadership of the Florida Orchestra in Tampa before the NC selection process ended but has been warmly welcomed back as a guest conductor. His conducting lineage is strong: his was the great Kurt Sanderling, long associated with the St. Petersburg Orchestra during the Mravinsly era, while his older half-brother is the conductor Thomas Sanderling.

Sanderling led the Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra in a buoyant reading of the Overture to the opera Russlan and Ludmilla by one of the fathers of Russian music, Mikhail Glinka (1804-57). According to Edward Downes, in The New York Philharmonic Guide to the Symphony, "the bright colors and transparent texture of Glinka's orchestration established a Russian tradition, which echoes into the twentieth century orchestra of Rimsky-Korsakoff, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev." In this performance, superior execution confirmed this assessment and revealed masterful composition skills. Ensemble was tight, with fine solos from section principals, while Sanderling gauged dynamics with a refined taste.

The featured piano soloist was Russian-born Vladimir Feltsman, an artist familiar to Triangle music lovers from recitals and guest appearances with the NC Symphony. Early in his career, he resisted marketing attempts to pigeon-hole him as a "Russian pianist," instead espousing the core of the Austrian-German literature. His deep insight and technical facility was evident to all throughout his sophisticated interpretation of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, Op. 15. It is clear from the composer's letter to his publisher that this concerto was in fact composed later than the nominal Second Concerto. Listeners who heard the June 23 performance of the latter noticed the strong contrast between No. 2's more generic Haydn-Mozart-like style and this far more assertive work, which shares characteristics with No. 3 and No. 5. Sanderling and his musicians provided an accompaniment that fit Feltsman's view like a glove. Feltsman's first movement cadenza startled some experienced pianists and listeners. It was perhaps one of his own modifications of one of the composer's three versions. The more brief third-movement cadenza had an intriguing touch — a very delicate underpinning by the strings. The pianist radiated a joy of music-making that just iced the pleasures of this performance.

Regular concert attendees and music critics hear lots of performances of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36. With its brilliant and raging brass writing, its dark and depressing slow string themes, and its ballet-like pizzicato third movement, it takes talent to make the jaded sit up and listen as if hearing it for the first time. Sanderling did this with loads of temperament, tight control of ensemble, and a finely shaded use of dynamics. Attacks were razor sharp, sections played in precise lock-step, and the many fine solos were strongly characterized. The strings had a rich and warm sound despite their relatively small number, the brass had a marvelous burnished corporate sound, and the woodwinds were wonderfully individualized.

The last of Beethoven's piano concertos to be played, the Fifth or "Emperor" Concerto, is scheduled for Thursday, July 19, with Stuart Goodyear as soloist.

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