Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
through November 16, 2014
by Michael J. Moran
The second program in the HSO’s Masterworks series this season focused on music from the German tradition, but with an unusual (and educational) twist. The season’s closing concert next June will feature Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, and this was one of several earlier programs in which Music Director Carolyn Kuan is finding connections to that work in other repertoire.
She led off with a dramatic performance of Brahms’ alternately turbulent and consoling Tragic Overture, which he wrote as a darker companion to his jubilant Academic Festival Overture in 1880. Kuan’s leadership and the orchestra’s playing were taut and incisive.
Before the next work on the program, Richard Strauss’ tone poem Death and Transfiguration, the musicians played an excerpt from the third movement of Mahler’s Fourth. In spoken comments Kuan noted that the composers, born four years apart, were lifelong rivals, or “frenemies,” whose music influenced each other’s. After this preface, the HSO’s sublime rendition of the Strauss, which depicts an artist only finding his ideal after death, made it sound more Mahlerian than usual, from the vividly painful climaxes to the transcendent hushed conclusion. Brasses, woodwinds, and two harps were particularly evocative.
Intermission was followed by a riveting account of Beethoven’s fifth and last piano concerto, nicknamed the “Emperor” presumably for its grandeur but also because it was written in Vienna during 1809, when Napoleon was conquering the city. The young Croatian-born soloist, Martina Filjak, met its considerable technical demands with dazzling virtuosity. She also scaled its interpretive heights with maturity and balance. Orchestra and conductor were with her all the way, strings providing a warm bath of support in the slow movement and the whole ensemble opening and closing the piece with appropriate pomp and circumstance.
Responding to the audience’s enthusiastic applause, Filjak then offered something completely different as an encore – a quiet “study for the left hand” by Scriabin. The delicacy of her playing here in contrast with Beethoven’s massive sonority was impressive. The early return of this rising star to Hartford would clearly be most welcome to her many fans at this concert.