Thursday, April 14, 2011

Music review: L'Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Frühbeck & Kuerti

Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
Conductor: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Piano: Anton Kuerti

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73 "Emperor"
Debussy: La Mer
Stravinski: L'Oiseau de feu (suite, 1919)
Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, Place des Arts

As the era of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal at the Salle Wilfrid Pelletier draws to a close (they move to a new hall next season), one of their previous conductors made a welcome return. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos had a brief stint as the OSM's Music Director prior to Charles Dutoit. Joining him at the piano for a rendition of the mighty "Emperor" Concerto by Beethoven was one of the world's finest living pianists, Anton Kuerti. Though both are in their 70s, they managed to make the music very fresh and invigorating.

I recall in my University years being fortunate to hear a masterclass with Kuerti after which he offered to practice this concerto for those in attendance and to explain what he was doing as he played. I remember being fascinated with his attention to detail and his profound musicianship. Many years later, his precision and detail is still there.

Yet he also played with a freedom and spontaneity that often made it seem quite improvisatory. His generous use of rubato and agogic accents was delightfully refreshing in an age where classical music too often mimics the mechanical plodding sameness as electronic pop music. His approach may have taken some getting used to but if you went along with it, it completely made sense. Every phrase was given its own appropriate character, yet it fit together into a greater whole. The tempi were a touch broader than usual in the fast movements and leaning towards briskness in the slow movement but always with a long, singing line. Frühbeck did a fine job in providing the needed flexible yet sturdy accompaniment.

Kuerti was also generous with his time and in supporting a charitable cause. He spent the intermission and a good deal of time after the concert autographing his CDs, of which 25% of the proceeds would go to Oxfam.

In the second half, Frühbeck's own approach to the early Twentieth-century scores of Debussy and Stravinsky was more straight-ahead rhythmically but that seemed to work well. I am more used to hearing a more sensuous La Mer, but his robust interpretation was interesting and effective in its own right.

Frühbeck's Oiseau de feu Suite was thrilling. The orchestra and the individual soloists easily handled the virtuoso elements. There wasn't a dull moment as they plowed through the dense score towards its rousing climax. Hearing it in a live setting allowed listeners to hear much more detail too such as the glissando harmonics which can get lost in the compression of recordings.

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos returns next year for a concert of arias by Wagner, Beethoven and R. Strauss (with Soprano Deborah Voigt) and orchestral pieces by Mozart and Rimsky-Korsakov. Kuerti can be heard in Oshawa on April 29 or Toronto on April 30 playing Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Ontario Philharmonic conducted by Montrealer Marco Parisotto.

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