NSO’s 1905

featuring Michael Roll, piano

Dare I say this is one of the finest performances I’ve heard from the NSO out of all their concerts I’ve ever attended.

I brought along another first-timer this evening, who was able to sit in my proximity for the evening. There were three pieces on the program tonight, surprisingly, including a world premiere.

The Council of Indigenous Peoples commissioned a piece from composer Yuan-Chen Li (李元貞), born in 1980, entitled Iluwan. Dwarfed by the other two pieces on the program, it is a piece of something like 10-15 minutes (probably not even that) that is what you might imagine a piece would sound like if you put two parts traditional, pentatonic folk music, two parts Chinese influence and one part Dutilleux (or similar) into a blender and strained. It was colorful, textural, evocative of scenery you’d wish to see out your window on vacation in the mountains, or at least might see on a postcard of such. A funereal motif that ran through parts of the piece struck me the most. Ms. Li was in attendance for the premiere and accepted applause and a bouquet from the stage.

Next on the program, which I expected to be one of the highlights, was Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, a piece I do love. Michael Roll, who won the first Leeds International Piano Competition at the tender age of 17, has a fine track record of working with very prestigious conductors and orchestras, not to mention sixteen performances at The Proms.

The program for the evening points out, “[Roll’s] recording of the Beethoven piano concertos with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Howard Shelley received rave reviews and was “Editor’s Choice” in the Gramophone magazine.” I suppose Gramophone and I have different tastes in Beethoven. The slower tempo for the opening movement I can abide; that’s very much a matter of preference. While the piece was overall stately, majestic, moving and exciting in all (or most of) the right places, I found Roll’s performance a bit…. flashy-splashy for Beethoven. I’ve never heard Beethoven sound as much like Liszt or Rachmaninoff.

He is clearly possessive of a fantastic talent; I’m not criticizing that at all, but I would far prefer finesse over fireworks, to say nothing of the maddening stomping we got at crucial points throughout the work. I find that distracting and wholly unnecessary. I know I’m being critical, but I also feel like the pedaling left some places especially resonant and even almost blurry. Was the piano especially bright this evening? All in all, it was a fine performance, but I found myself missing Buchbinder dearly.

After two encore pieces (the second given very much begrudgingly, I feel), we finally reached intermission. I know the NSO gives 20 minutes for their intermission, but what I did not know was that when I listened to Rostropovich’s recording of Shostakovich 11 this afternoon, a whole 68 minutes had passed. That is a hefty symphony.

It’s in four movements, but the piece is really one gargantuan, soul-crushing, titanic heaving mass of history and tragedy and nightmares. It’s very rare for a piece to reach a level of intensity where I physically brace, or even wince, at the music. Of the NSO’s performances, only the night in March a few years ago with Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw and Mahler 6 were that terrifically skin-searing.

It was nice to have Maestro Lu back on the podium, and under his baton, the NSO played not just well for the Shostakovich, but really exceptional, with precision and feeling and polish, but the kind of harrowing, teeth-rattling intensity that a piece like this calls for. It was really exquisite, and the feeling that such a large-scale piece leaves on the listener when all four movements are played without pause of any kind (unless you know the piece well) is that it’s just one sprawling mass that can be easy to get lost in, but the suddenness and contrast and wildness and all of the complex emotions and feelings that it evokes, especially when played so exceptionally well as it was tonight, reflects the chaotic, real-world atmosphere of life, be it 1905 or mid-century Hungary. No matter what you attribute it to, what you saw or how you felt it, I think everyone left the concert hall having experienced something. At the very least it was ringing ears, and more than likely a deeply moving, and at points paralyzingly powerful evening.

It was by far the most spectacular thing of the evening, and probably of the entire season, methinks. I would have been perfectly fine coming home and just… pondering on it the entire evening, taking a mental and emotional break to digest it all. Really superb. I was not prepared for it.

We’re coming to that time, though, when the concerts dry up with the summer heat, and we have to subsist on whatever special guests or events roll through town. That’s okay, though. Save your hard-earned cash for the autumn, when very exciting things begin to happen again. See you soon.

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