One unfortunate trend in how concert music is often marketed these days showers disproportionate attention on a 'star' soloist, who basks in the limelight and the obligatory standing ovations, as though the orchestra were merely the house 'backup band' graciously permitted to share the stage. What a delight this concert was, in contrast, when Alexander Melnikov joined with the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot's baton to reaffirm the unadulteratedly collaborative experience of a concerto. Rather than a parade of quirks justified as 'virtuosity' or a psychogram of a performer's dominating personality, the 41-year-old Russian pianist provided a deeply satisfying, richly musical account of Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major. And much of that satisfaction came from the sympathy Melnikov, Morlot and the SSO found in their partnership.
Such was the inevitable conclusion of Sunday afternoon's magnificent performance, which took nothing for granted and kept this listener spellbound from the subdued opening (which Morlot effectively milked for suspense) to the concerto's ebullient final chords.
Melnikov may be best known for his justly acclaimed recording of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues – pieces that likewise quarry unusual aspects from the seemingly familiar tonal scheme – but he brings a compelling openness to Beethoven as well. His first entrance – subdued, like the opening of the piece itself – immediately communicated the underlying sensibility of his interpretation overall: a sensibility interested not in restating conclusions already arrived at but in exploring what will happen, with the orchestra as his peers – and often finding rapt surprise in the results.
The pianist's sensitive phrasing managed to sound original without being mannered or affected. Showing his preference for a light, feathery touch, he made impressions that were anything but lightweight. It was one thing to sustain the floating, rhapsodic aura of the Largo, but Melnikov brought an unusually caressing tenderness to many passages in the outer movements as well, inviting his audience to participate in a more attentive listening – a strategy beautifully accommodated by Morlot and the orchestra.
For the first movement Melnikov chose the fearsome, characterful second cadenza which Beethoven published. Where such accretions of virtuosity easily end up sounding mechanical, he made its embellishments and dazzling tactics emerge as organic extensions of the musical thought. And his shaping of the rambunctious Rondo theme invested each echoing gesture with a slightly different accent or dynamic, enhancing the music's vivid character while never distorting it.
Intriguingly, Morlot had set the stage for the Beethoven – one of the finest performances of that repertoire I've heard from the conductor – with a well-thought-out interpretation of Stravinsky's peripatetic Symphony in C.
Completed after the composer's emigration to the United States, this neoclassical score contains many deceptive simplicities of its own, side by side with alluring inventions and hall-of-mirrors effects such as the interrogation into what a beginning means in the opening gestures or the enigmatic closing measures. While a greater degree of crispness would have defined its edges more clearly, Morlot and the SSO found an attractive balance between Stravinskian humour and mystery.
The programme also included that monument to C major, the “Jupiter” Symphony. For this last of Mozart's great final symphonic trilogy, Morlot resorted to a sensible blend of modern, 'beefier' sonority and historically informed stylings, opting overall for relatively moderate tempi. Moments such as the stop-and-start trio in the third movement resonated afresh in the context of Stravinsky's playful take on classical rhetoric.
Morlot's sensitivity to dynamics and timbral blends paid rich dividends. He underscored the aggressive trumpet-and-drums sonorities of the first and last movements – with positively Jovian thunder contributed by timpanist Michael Crusoe. At the end of Mozart's grand contrapuntal peroration – another 'modernist' glance back at the past, anticipating Stravinsky's Symphony in C by 150 years – the 'thunderbolts' that set the whole symphony in motion returned thrillingly transformed into a full-scale storm of jubilation.
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