Review: At the Pittsburgh Symphony, a formidable pianist surprises with a severe Grieg concerto

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Blessed be the pianist that still finds a way to startle and delight even with a staple of the pianistic repertoire.

Review: At the Pittsburgh Symphony, a formidable pianist surprises with a severe Grieg concerto
© Provided by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

At Friday’s Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert, Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki delivered a formidable, inventive performance of Grieg’s Concerto in A minor for Piano and Orchestra alongside guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado. Lisiecki’s ear for melodic contour is exceptional. From the first explosive chord, he was collected and controlled, leading the ear toward harmonic conclusions with simple, elegant phrases and masterful lyricality, startling on occasion with a well-timed acceleration or elasticity in his timing.

Lisiecki remained in close contact with Heras-Casado and the orchestra throughout, blending his sound with theirs with particular success in the ethereal second movement. His was a developed interpretation. If anything could have improved on the performance, I hear the lighter parts of the first movement and the finale, based on a style of folk dance common at weddings in Grieg’s native Norway as more playful and frisky, whereas Lisiecki maintained an unabating severity throughout.

The evening’s appetizer for the orchestra alone was the Overture No. 1 in E minor by Louise Farrenc, a virtuoso pianist in 19th century France and a composer whose works are enjoying some new attention of late. This particular overture, a stately affair, allowed the orchestra to luxuriate in large, well-balanced chords before a quicker-tempo melody in the high strings propelled the work along pleasantly.

However, in both the overture and the evening’s second course, Brahms’ sunny Symphony No. 2 in D major, the orchestra lacked a certain intensity. This complemented the first movement of the symphony well, as the players seemed to reach out and caress listeners with a deliciously mellow sound. However, Heras-Casado rarely strayed from this effect. The second and third movements could have benefited from a more focused, brilliant sound at times, though principal horn player William Caballero’s second movement solo could have melted the iciest of hearts.

Brass achieved to great effect only in the very finale, a rousing end to a concert that indicated the returning grandeur of an orchestra regaining its footing.

This program repeats Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Information at pittsburghsymphony.org.

Jeremy Reynolds: jreynolds@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634; twitter: @Reynolds_PG. Mr. Reynolds’ work at the Post-Gazette is supported by a grant from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Getty Foundation and Rubin Institute.

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