Monday, March 18, 2019

Pianist Amir Katz soloes with the Israel Chamber Orchestra in Tel Aviv, conductor: Ariel Zuckermann

Amir Katz (photo: Robert Recker)
“Liszt - Concerto for Piano” was the title of the Israel Chamber Orchestra’s recent concert  conducted by the ICO’s house conductor Ariel Zuckerman, with pianist Amir Katz soloing in two works of the concert. This writer attended the event on March 12th 2019 in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

The program took the listener on a whirlwind tour of Europe, from Scandinavia to Central Europe and somewhat eastwards. It opened with Danish violinist, conductor, teacher, and composer Carl Nielsen's Little Suite for Strings, Op.1. Written at age 22, when he was still a student at the Royal Danish Conservatory in Copenhagen, it began its existence as a string quintet; however, on the advice of his teacher Niels Gade, Nielsen reset it as a nonet. With Zuckerman conducting without a baton (throughout the concert), he presented the work with the ICO’s moderately-sized string section, preserving the work’s personal, chamber character. The Praeludium, of a contemplative and  elegiac mood, set the scene, (its downcast statement revisited in the Finale), with Zuckerman choosing to keep the graceful middle movement’s character reserved in its lilting waltz rhythm, as the Finale, intense and vibrant with the occasional dark shadow, closed with a sweep of positive energy. The ICO’s players gave a subtle, transparent and meaningful reading to what is indeed an appealing work, one also displaying some excellent string writing.

Moving into the world of more vociferous emotions, Zuckermann and the ICO were joined by Israeli pianist Amir Katz to perform Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 in E flat major, S124. Culminating from a long gestation period, there are at least six complete drafts of the concerto, many bearing the title “Concerto symphonique”, indicating Liszt's intention to have the orchestra play as vital a role as the soloist. The exhilarating work was first performed in 1855, with Liszt himself as the soloist and no other than Héctor Berlioz as conductor. Immediately following its grandiose opening, Katz invites the listener to join him in one of Romantic repertoire’s most dashing joy rides as the piano bursts in with robust panache in a virtuosic cadenza following the orchestra’s bold statement of the initial theme. The cascade of ever-transforming ideas, of blistering octave passages, of traversing and criss-crossing the keyboard in all manner of virtuosic techniques momentarily clears the way for such poignant, personal moments as Katz playing alone or the piano’s delectable dueting with the clarinet, those to be swept away by orchestral tutti of considerable intensity. In the radiantly tranquil second movement (Quasi Adagio) Katz gives tender, glowing and deftly crafted expression to one of Liszt’s most ravishingly beautiful pieces (not devoid of dramatic outbursts) as he engages with oboe and ‘cello with delicacy, his subtle holding back here and there endorsing the fragility of the movement’s sentiments. Then comes the dancing third movement, in which the triangle plays a surprisingly central role, with Zuckermann and Katz maintaining finespun balance with the minuscule, glistening soloist, as they enter into effortless, suave dialogue with it. The concerto ends with Liszt opening up the floodgates and ending the work with a rousing march, first charming and then pacing in devil-may-care momentum to a very exciting finale. Zuckermann and Katz clearly share common ideas on what is indeed one of the most breathtakingly difficult piano concertos ever to be written, with Amir Katz’ consummate technical brilliance merging with his most delicate gestures of poetic expression..

Liszt is best-known for his virtuoso piano music, which has, together with that of his Polish contemporary Frédéric Chopin, become a cornerstone of the classical keyboard repertoire. Following the intermission at the ICO’s Tel Aviv concert, Amir Katz returned to the stage to perform Frédéric Chopin’s Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante in E-flat major, Op. 22 (“spianato” -  evenly, without contrasts, without any great agitation or anxiety). Strange bedfellows (in Shakespeare’s words), the two pieces are totally different in agenda.  Enigmatically, Chopin added the solo piano Andante in 1843 or 1835, having written the Polonaise in 1830-31, publishing the two as  “Grande Polonaise Brillante, précédée d’un Andante spianato”. (His performance of them  in April 1835 was the last grand concert given in Paris by “Chopin the virtuoso”.) Katz, with his signature silken touch and introspective nature, takes the listener out of the world of reality into that of timeless wonder and reflection, infusing the nocturne-like Andante with magic, highlighting hidden melodic lines, allowing for understated flexing and ornamenting the piece with gossamer asides. With the fanfares of the horns announcing the Polonaise, one is swiftly (and somewhat brutally) transported out of the pianist’s personal musings and into the opulent, glittering 19th-century European concert hall, as piano and orchestra engage in an exhilarating dialogue of manifold moods and timbres. Unlike some performances of this work we hear, here orchestra and piano focus on layering and balance. Katz presents the virtuosic soundscape with pizzazz and a sense of immediacy, joy and elegance, embracing the many aspects of its its dazzling and sometimes-lyrical text, its ornaments and figurations, with articulacy and enjoyment. The decor of the Recanati Auditorium has seen better days, but close your eyes and you are hearing the Polonaise from a box in one of Europe’s opulent chandeliered concert halls.

The concert concluded with Franz Schubert’s Symphony No.3 in D major, D.200, composed in 1815, the most productive year of Schubert’s life. Paying  homage to symphonic predecessors such as Haydn and Mozart, the symphony celebrates the sunny character of  the key of D Major. Maestro Ariel Zuckermann’s performance of it gave expression to the freshness and energy of the writing of the 18-year-old composer, from the spirited opening Allegro maestoso, with its bubbling clarinet theme, to the graceful Allegro con brio, the bold, almost-boisterous Minuet with its strongly accented third beats and tempo changes, its Trio reminiscent of jolly rustic Austrian dance melodies, and on to the playful Presto vivace movement, bristling with interest and exuberance.  The performance also gave the audience many opportunities to enjoy the ICO’s high-quality woodwind playing throughout.



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