Music celebrating the artist as hero swept through Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall this weekend as the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stéphane Denève provided an electrifying Ein Heldenleben. This followed Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the keyboard, fiery and intense, in Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in A major, the two works performed without intermission. 

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
© Andrew Eccles

Both French, Denève and Thibaudet have long enjoyed a unique musical synergy in their playing, evident in abundance at Sunday’s concert. After a mildly uneven start, orchestra, and pianist discovered the heart of this short but meaty work of passionate romanticism and maintained an unrelenting pace of exploration and discovery. Liszt’s concertos can be tedious and humdrum if their essence is not revealed through interpretative skill and the intellectual depth of the pianist and conductor. The intelligent musicality of the score and the racy rhythms of the Hungarian-born composer were captivating, as Thibaudet – svelte in a grey suit that reflected his silver hair – offered Liszt at his most brilliant and an array of virtuosic effects without diminishing the work’s integrity. 

Denève is a familiar face to Philadelphia audiences. Music director of the St Louis Symphony and the Brussels Philharmonic, he served six years as Principal Guest Conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra. His podium presence is one of total engagement and absorption in the music, wielding the baton with tremendous physical energy concentrated in the arms and hands. His rapport with the orchestra is palpable, his smiles irrefutable even beneath the obligatory face-mask. 

This was especially apparent during the performance of Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, a tone poem in six movements completed in 1898. While Strauss never formally acknowledged that he was the hero depicted, there is little doubt, considering that the hero’s assistant is identified as Strauss’ wife, Pauline, and that the clowder of snarling cats (woodwinds) in the second movement, titled The Hero’s Adversaries, represents the critics he regarded as his foes. Denève smoothly navigated the twists and turns of this highly original, egocentric score. This consists of opening and closing sections with some of the most well-known tunes and phrases in Romantic symphonic literature, wrapped around a maverick violin concerto with the solo violin representing the capricious moods and activities of the composer’s wife. In this case, the splendid concertmaster David Kim was soloist, adding distinctive charm and dazzling virtuosity. I could imagine sparks flying from his violin. No one other than Strauss could pull this off, and with eight right-as-rain French horns (Jennifer Montone, principal) to boot. 

What a delightful work, even with its head-scratching moments, played with vigor, strength and whimsy by a talented conductor and some of the best symphonic musicians in the United States. The orchestra pulled out the stops on volume, so much so that I hardly noticed a blaring boom box nearby as the departing audience poured onto Broad Street. Strauss casts a long shadow, and not a quiet one.