Jan Lisiecki was a late replacement for an indisposed Murray Perahia, who has had to withdraw from engagements at the Salzburg Festival, the BBC Proms and the Lucerne Festival. The opening item for the programme remained Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, a Perhaia calling card in recent years, but Lisiecki is quite some stand-in (he was already at the festival for a solo recital the night before). As we arrived we could faintly hear some very last minute rehearsals of the concerto filtering through from the concert hall at Jūrmala. That was from the smaller fully enclosed hall, alongside the large open air venue it adjoins, where the big orchestral concerts are given. It suggested that Lisiecki not only had not enough time to prepare for the work – how could he when he had come to offer a very taxing solo programme? – but that maybe he had not played it in a while. He used a score discreetly placed, and turned some pages on occasion, but that looked just a reassurance mechanism. He did not disappoint, sounding as if he knew his way round this music, and at times almost as if he and Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic had often played it together – a tribute to a veteran conductor and his experienced band.

Jan Lisiecki and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra © Pauls Zvirbulis
Jan Lisiecki and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
© Pauls Zvirbulis

What we got from the now 24-year old soloist was an extra spontaneity, at times an impetuosity, which brought this much-played concerto vividly to life. His unaccompanied opening was the most simple and unaffected statement of the first subject, before the excellent IPO stole in with a deep, well blended string sound. This ‘hall’, actually a large wooden platform and roof, an auditorium with a single tier of seats, a glass back wall and its two long sides open to the air, provides a warm ambience, and allows a crescendo to grow without ever becoming hard. Of course the open sides welcome in occasional noises off, and some conventional halls offer an analytical sound with more detail perhaps, but often at the cost of greater dryness. In this space Beethoven could bloom as well as boom. If some orchestral detail went missing in the mix, that could be because of unfamiliarity with the hall, though the Israel Phil is a well-travelled orchestra and has been here before.

The fine account of the first movement saw Lisiecki and Mehta collaborate very effectively, with some nice give-and-take rubato mid-movement, accompanied by conspiratorial glances. The rich bassoon counterpoint for the pianist’s second entry was typical of the sensitive detail the wind players offered, and Lisiecki’s contribution culminated in a stirring account of the cadenza.

The Andante con moto’s unusual form and texture – alternation of fierce unison string chords gradually yielding to increasingly poetic entreaties from the soloist – has been likened to Orpheus taming the furies. This seaside resort setting does not feel like the gates to Hades, but soloist and orchestra dramatised the music persuasively as if they believed in the comparison. The movement's quietly resigned ending lead without pause into the chords that launch the finale, whose rondo form and Vivace marking gives the soloist plenty of scope to bring something individual to each episode. Lisiecki gave us some glittering passagework with fine clarity as well as delicacy, and on occasion colluded with Mehta in a sly bit of wit. Not that this was emasculated Beethoven – there was no attempt to soften the composer’s more abrasive orchestral moments, the coda in particular having plenty of sonic power.

Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra © Pauls Zvirbulis
Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
© Pauls Zvirbulis

Mehta was appointed Music Adviser to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 1969, and in 1981 became its permanent Music Director for Life. This is a very long association, and the results are audible – and visible in the responses Mehta obtains from the smallest gesture. An old-school stylist, with a long baton and clear and continuous beat, the occasional left-hand gesture reserved for the key moments. At 83, he now walks on slowly using a stick, and sits to conduct. But there is nothing halting about his Mahler conducting, and this account of the First Symphony was superb. It is a piece that orchestras love to tour, perhaps because every section gets its moments. There was one difference this time, as Mehta opted to include the discarded ‘Blumine’ second movement. Its sentimental trumpet solo was affectingly played here, but it never adds enough to the overall impact of the symphony to justify its restoration. And the other movements are not often this well executed, right through to the finale’s terrific coda. The horns resisted the score’s injunction to stand for that, but there playing was acknowledged when the conductor had them take a bow. They and all their colleague deserved the audience’s standing ovation, as did the conductor.


Roy's press trip to Jūrmala was funded by the Riga Jurmala Music Festival

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