The versatile Orchestra of St Luke's, now in its 45th season, has evidently stepped up its involvement in Baroque and early 19th-century repertoire since a specialist in the field, Bernard Labadie, began his tenure as the ensemble’s Music Director. Labadie – who gained his reputation in the decades he was leading the French-Canadian chamber orchestra Les Violons du Roy – has not only a deep understanding of the intricacies of playing these scores, but also an unbridled passion for them that he is ready to communicate on every circumstance.

Bernard Labadie with the Orchestra of St. Luke's

The carefully planned program for this performance – part of the orchestra's subscription series presented by Carnegie Hall – stood under the sign of Libra, the symbol for equilibrium and symmetry: two Bach concertos for keyboard and strings were bookended by two Mendelssohn works – both inspired by the composer’s journey to Scotland in the summer of 1829 – interpreted by a fuller chamber ensemble.

There is a well-known connection between Bach and Mendelssohn, the latter having a huge role in the rediscovery of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music at the beginning of the Romantic era. Nevertheless, apart from the contrapuntal elements in the “Scottish” Symphony’s finale, there were few signs of Bach’s shadow in the selected Mendelssohn scores. The stand-alone overture Hebrides, with its description of the Isle of Staffa and Fingal’s Cave, can be considered as an early tone poem. A very strong mental impression of a tormented seascape lingered in the composer’s mind until it was transcribed into a score, reminding one that JWM Turner’s contemporary watercolors and oils must have been born in the same manner, but using different means of artistic expression. Unfortunately, a brisk rendition of this remarkable opus, conveying an impression of free flowing despite the score’s rather formal structure, was marred by several imprecise brass entries.

Beatrice Rana
© Steve J Sherman

Most of the concertgoers came for the evening's soloist, the young Italian pianist Beatrice Rana, whose recital debut in Carnegie's Zankel Hall earlier this year was extremely well received. A rare Bach devotee among today's immensely talented crop of under-thirty pianists, Rana made her concert debut at nine with the Concerto no. 5 in F minor. She played it again here, in addition to the much more elaborate Concerto no. 1 in D minor. Rana interpreted both works with incisiveness and clear articulation, without overemphasizing the modern piano’s coloring capabilities. The shifts between minor sonorities in the D minor’s outer movements were beautifully rendered. Her playing in the F minor’s slow movement had a Mozartian quality. Nevertheless, the collaboration between pianist and orchestra often left much to be desired. There were too many rhythmical discrepancies and the instrumentalists seemed occasionally apathetic while Rana's performance was constantly driven by youthful energy. The blame should be equally divided: determined to follow her own vision, Rana barely looked at the podium during her entire performance.

The spectators that left after Rana's encore (a marvelously rendered Gigue from the Partita no. 1 with its dialogue between hands echoing the piano-orchestra exchange in the finale of the Concerto no. 5 in F minor) missed the ensemble at its best in the last work of the evening. The Third Symphony, nicknamed “Scottish” even if the presence of references to the country’s folklore or landscape is highly debatable, is one of Mendelssohn’s finest symphonic outputs. In a potentially better-rehearsed performance, entries were sharp and accurate, from the first enunciation of the “ruins of Holyrood Palace” motif, in the slow introduction to the first part, to the majestic coda that crowns the finale. Transitions between movements were always smooth, underlying the composition’s unity, while contrasts between stormy and serene, jocular and melancholy kept the listeners focused. Paying attention, one could sense the music to come: a Brahmsian cello line, Tchaikovsky’s saccharine inflections, the storm scene from The Flying Dutchman.