Monday, March 10, 2003

Pianist Serkin breathtaking

Maestro Eri Klas takes CSO, Strauss to intense heights

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It was a horn-lover's evening, a program of Richard Strauss and Brahms played by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Saturday that captured all the power and majesty those scores demand and resulted in two standing ovations.

A small but appreciative crowd turned out to hear the excellent American pianist Peter Serkin play Brahms' Concerto No. 1 in D Minor. In the second half, Estonian maestro Eri Klas conducted Strauss' tone poem, Ein Heldenleben, featuring no fewer than nine French horns.

Klas, whose only other CSO appearance was in 1992, has carved out a distinguished career in Northern Europe. Presently, he is music director of the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Tampere (Finland) Philharmonic. His experience on the opera stage includes the Estonian National Opera in Tallinn, where he is conductor laureate, and the Finnish National Opera, where he is principal guest conductor.

Knowing this, it was no surprise to hear the dark color and drama that he elicited from the CSO in the orchestral exposition to Brahms' D Minor Concerto, a work that is symphonic in scope and richness. That sense of drama, combined with the artistry of Serkin, made for an impressive collaboration.

When the pianist made his first CSO visit in 1969, he was better known as the son of piano legend Rudolf Serkin. Since then, Peter Serkin has established his own reputation as an artist of imagination and intellect.

He tackled the first movement's formidable octave passages with a kind of fierce intensity. The lyrical second theme, introduced alone in the piano, was beautifully voiced, and had breadth and clarity. There were breathtaking moments, such as when he traded noble themes with the horns.

One had the feeling that every note was calculated for tone and expression. The Adagio was hymnlike, with its serene give-and-take from the winds and stunning chains of trills in the piano. The pianist pushed ahead in the rondo theme of the finale; his cadenza was intense and exciting.

He was not flashy, but was fond of throwing up his arms at the ends of sections, as if handing it off to the conductor. Klas complied; the strings had warmth and sheen. In the coda, as they drove to the finish together, Serkin held eye contact with the musicians, despite his own fiendish double runs.

Strauss' symphonic poem offered drama of a different kind. The opening Hero's theme in the horns and strings had a big, swashbuckling sound. At first, Klas seemed to be going for the big gesture, rather than refinement - there might have been more expression in the winds in the "critics" section, for instance. But his direction grew convincing as he caught up the orchestra in fervent sweeps, capturing the milestones of the "Hero's Life" with vivid color.

The horns, led by Thomas Sherwood, produced firm, exquisitely bold tones. (Principal horn Robin Graham, who sat in on Saturday, will return from leave for injuries in June.) The battle scene, with its offstage trumpets, was a powerful moment of controlled chaos. Peaceful episodes had beauty, depth and all-encompassing warmth. Orchestral soloists responded wonderfully; concertmaster Timothy Lees took the role of the Hero's wife with character and nuance.

It was the kind of music that shines in the clear, resonant acoustics of Music Hall, and no one seemed to be enjoying it more than the musicians themselves.


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