“Things found here are the opposite of what they are meant to represent.” So said conductor Thomas Dausgaard at the opening of Saturday evening’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor and Nielsen’s Second Symphony “The Four Temperaments”. Such a dialectic linking of the works offered a fascinating insight into the nature of the works, not to mention the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s masterful performance of each.

Thomas Dausgaard © Per Morten Abrahamsen
Thomas Dausgaard
© Per Morten Abrahamsen

Dausgaard found an especially nice tension in opposites during the evening’s first work, Beethoven’s grand Third Piano Concerto. Soloist Jan Lisiecki, a tall, wiry figure with a mop of blonde hair and cherubic face, provided a beautiful balance between technical mastery and romantic passion, never once sliding into bravura or predictable fast-finger fireworks. With wonderful subtlety from the string section in the first movement, Dausgaard led the orchestra on to some wonderfully modulated, subtle moments. Lisiecki balanced brusque aggression with gentle poeticism, the sweeping arpeggios and ringing trills of the first movement integrated into a full symphonic sound that, as Dausgaard said, reminded one not solely of its main precepts – anxiety and fear – but hope, escape, release.

Lisiecki’s performance, technically perfect and careful, lacked none of the warmth or lyricism needed to convey the plaintive, emotional nature of the piece. Even playing pianissimo, the notes could still be perfectly heard, a smooth, effortless mix with a watchfully harmonized orchestra. The reiteration of the movement’s main theme was delicate, its move into stormy seas natural and unforced, starting out as a confusion rather than a sudden tempest, a befuddlement rather than a bar room brawl. The young Canadian pianist performed the second movement’s opening notes as a kind of benediction, with careful, loving octave runs and heartfelt flourishes. The famous third movement was a deep expression of loving-kindness between the material, the soloist, and orchestra, the call-and-response between brass and piano playful, colorful, less an angry exchange than a jousting tease. Dausgaard interestingly slowed the tempo for the movement’s scherzo-like section near the end, then returned, casually, to the quick one-two tempo that marked its brisk, not frantic, pace.

The performance, as a whole, was an exquisite dialogue between piano and orchestra, with Dausgaard respectful of Lisiecki’s sense of timing (technical, emotional and otherwise), and Lisiecki working with the TSO’s talented musicians to create a fascinating, knowing connection that highlighted the work’s more surprising elements. Along with the requisite rage and stormy romanticism associated with Beethoven, there was a keen sense of humor, joy, playfulness and grace, aspects explored through the patience and keen curiosity of its interpreters. Lisiecki, fully acknowledging the (applauding) orchestra and coming out for several curtain calls, treated the audience to a lyrically poetic performance of Chopin’s Etude Op.25 no. 1, before taking a final bow.

The concert, performed without intermission, provided a powerful sonic link between Beethoven’s piece, composed in the early 1800s, and Nielsen’s, composed some one hundred years later. The Danish composer’s Symphony no. 2, “The Four Temperaments,” was inspired by a picture the composer saw at a pub in Zealand which depicted the four medieval humours (Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic, Sanguine). Premiered in Copenhagen in 1902, the symphony captures their elemental counterparts (fire, water, earth, air). Dausgaard explained he was interested in bringing out the “face” and “intense sense of character” of each. The first movement Allegro collerico, with a passionate and sweeping opening, fully displays its elemental characteristic (fire), while building a firm momentum within a very structured framework. Dausgaard explored the movement’s cinematic qualities with aplomb, offering a nice hold on the movement’s tensions between aggression and introspection. The call-and-response between basses and woodwinds was strong yet delicate, highlighting the evening’s dance of opposites; longtime TSO clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas offered some lovely, melodious clarinet playing which stood out amidst the larger sonic bravado of the score.

The second movement Allegro comodo e flemmatico, with its meandering opening lines, luxuriates in a fairy tale-like resplendence that was brought to entrancing life under Dausgaard’s watchful baton. The woodwind section offered a delightful tiptoe-like performance, while the vivid strings and woodwinds of the third movement emphasized its sombre, funereal tone and underscored a strong musical connection to the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. A beguiling interplay between strings and woodwinds, with flutes providing moments of levity and brightness, were handled with maximum sensitivity. The Beethoven-like bang of the opening to the fourth movement (Allegro sanguineo) reminded one of the earlier concerto. Though the movement is characterized by fittingly airy string parts, there’s a jumpy rhythmic interplay between brass and bass sections as well, and this dialogue was brought to vivid life through the dramatic interplay of the respective TSO sections.

Dausgaard brought out the inherently melodic quality of Nielsen’s work and allowed each section of the orchestra to form a fascinating dialogue, one punctuated by dramatic percussive breaks. The Danish conductor skillfully integrated harmonic elements with the piece’s more rocky aspects: booming percussion, weepy violins, dissonant and clear melodic lines. Drama and pathos co-existed with humor and joy, with a keen sense of freedom rising from the ashes of despair. By the end of the piece, indeed the entire performance, one wanted to stand up and cheer – and many, rightly, did.

****1