Monday, February 14, 2011


February 11

A musical dynamo with something original to say.

One of the most impressive performances of the young year was turned in Friday night by German pianist Lars Vogt, who joined the Czech Philharmonic for a dazzling rendition of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor (Opus 54). The piece itself was almost incidental, as Vogt showed not only complete mastery of his instrument, but an ability to craft phrases and find nuances that turned the poetic fantasy into something distinctly his own.

Vogt’s repertoire ranges from Haydn to Hindemith, with much of it solidly in the Romantic era – Brahms, Schubert, Beethoven. He was the first-ever Pianist-in-Residence with the Berlin Philharmonic (2003-04), and has recorded Schumann, Grieg and Beethoven with Sir Simon Rattle, who calls Vogt “one of the most extraordinary musicians of any age group that I have had the fortune to be associated with.”

Logrolling among high-level musicians is nothing new, but it’s easy to see why a conductor of Rattle’s stature would be impressed. Vogt is one of those rare players who seems born to his instrument, playing with innate grace and fluidity. His hands glide across the keys as smoothly and seamlessly as the music seems to flow out of him, sure but never harsh, perfectly controlled yet supple. It’s an elegant style, though still flexible enough to accommodate a large vocabulary of references, textures and colors.

Much of Vogt’s interpretation of the Schumann piece was straightforward, respectful of the concerto’s thematic development and lyrical beauty. He added his flourishes primarily during the solo piano passages, turning some into silk, purring and ringing his way through others. To contemporary ears, there were flashes of jazz, cabaret and modern music in the sounds and rhythms, especially the explosive finale. It was a highly intelligent performance that the orchestra recognized by doing something it rarely does – taking a background role in the piece, playing at a subdued level that kept the soloist in the spotlight.

So it wasn’t surprising that Vogt’s first acknowledgment when he finished was to the orchestra, hugging conductor Lawrence Foster and applauding the players before turning to the audience to receive extended, enthusiastic applause. And he was generous with his encore, a long, meditative intermezzo (by Brahms? It was hard to hear his introduction) that held the audience entranced, holding its collective breath.

Better in the broad strokes.
Foster, an American of Romanian descent, also seems to be a Romantic at heart, drawing warm tones and lush sounds out of the orchestra during the lyrical parts of the program, but showing less skill in others. In the opening piece, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s well-known Hebrides overture, the beauty of the cave and sense of solitude were strong, but the crashing waves lacked pop, especially toward the end, when the piece got ragged and even seemed, for a few seconds, as if it was going to fall apart. The Hebrides was mostly a reminder of why the Czech Philharmonic is the country’s premier orchestra, putting an authoritative burnish on a last-minute substitute (for the originally scheduled opener, Smetana’s sketch for the witches’ scene in Macbeth.)

The concluding trio of Liszt symphonic poems was much the same, strong in the lyrical and emotional passages, but otherwise uneven. The broad strokes that Foster favors, especially in the horns, are good for invoking drama but not very suitable for creating colors, which are one of the chief attractions and strengths of these works. The Liszt pieces had their moments, but regular Czech Philharmonic listeners know that the orchestra is capable of sounding much better.

Still, a good pairing of guest performers, and in Lars Vogt, a reminder that even with familiar, timeworn works, great artists always find something fresh and original to say.

For more on Lars Vogt:

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