The Italian conductor Fabio Luisi has become an increasingly familiar and welcome face to New York audiences. Recently appointed Principal Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, he is primarily known here as an operatic conductor. But he has also been the chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (known as the Wiener Symphoniker in German) since 2005, and on Sunday the Viennese joined him in Avery Fisher Hall. While the warhorse program recalled the taste of the city’s other major orchestra--the arch-conservative Vienna Philharmonic--it was a fine afternoon.

Fabio Luisi © Barbara Luisi
Fabio Luisi
© Barbara Luisi

For the orchestra, the centerpiece of this rather short program was in the second half, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. (The program originally featured Franz Schmidt’s remarkable and underrated Symphony No. 4 but was changed to the familiar Beethoven, an unfortunate alteration.) As was clear in his recent Siegfried at the Met, Luisi is a conductor of Apollonian temperament, leading interpretations of elegant control and clear textures. This was a polished performance that never lost a sense of classical balance. Richard Wagner called this symphony "the apotheosis of the dance," but Luisi's dance was a classical ballet, not a cancan.

Luisi began the first movement at a broad tempo, showcasing the orchestra’s plush string sound and excellently balanced winds. The body of the movement (which included the exposition repeat) was played with graceful power. Luisi’s excellent dramatic timing, always an asset in conducting opera, proved valuable in the exciting coda. The famous opening of the second movement was intoned by the lower strings with mechanical flatness, growing in expression with the entry of each section of the orchestra. It made a powerful crescendo, though one that felt more inevitable than organic. The third movement showed quicksilver gradations of dynamics and phrasing through the many repetitions of the theme. The last movement was taken at an exhilarating tempo but never turned manic.

The program had begun with the twenty-three-year old French pianist Lise de la Salle’s rendition of Rachmaninov’s ever-popular Piano Concerto No. 2. De la Salle got off to a forceful start, banging out the opening chords with steely authority. Her somber, fateful opening was matched by the orchestra’s dense sound. Unfortunately that steeliness was something she would struggle with for the entire concerto, her Steinway seemingly so brightly voiced and hard-edged as to make warmth and poetry distant thoughts. De la Salle has sharp technique, and her fast arpeggios emerged with force, but the melodic line was often lost under the orchestra. After some bumbling by the orchestra at the beginning of the second movement, de la Salle loosened up, and played with more flexibility. Despite the piano’s persistently tinkling tone, she showed poetry and introspection in the slow movement’s figuration. The percussive acrobatics of the last movement were handled with dexterity and verve, and Luisi managed the tempo changes with unobstructive aplomb without further balance issues.

The orchestra was warmly applauded and played two encores: a rapid-fire account of the overture to Le nozze di Figaro and, appropriately for Viennese visitor’s, Johann Strauss II’s polka Unter Donner und Blitz. New York audiences will have more Luisi to look forward to in January when he conducts Götterdämmerung at the Met.