Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37
Jean Sibelius: En Saga
Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel
Antonio Pappano: Conductor
Igor Levit: Piano
When most of the world came to a stop in the spring 2020, all my tickets for the remainder of the concert season in my then home base of New York City obviously became useless. Among all the missed performances, the one that crushed me the most was without a doubt Igor Levit’s recital at Zankel Hall. The young Russian-German pianist, educator and political activist, had rapidly become one of the hottest names in classical music, and I wanted to grab my chance to hear him in Carnegie Hall’s wonderfully intimate concert hall before he moved on to bigger spaces. Alas, the COVID pandemic decided otherwise, and three years later, the man now plays the prestigious but vast Stern Auditorium.
But then, as I was checking the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia’s 2023-2024 season calendar, I noticed that he was scheduled to perform in the Auditorium Parco della Musica Ennio Morricone in November. Granted, he would only be there for one piece, Beethoven’s pivotal third piano concerto, and the concert hall is probably as vast as the Stern Auditorium, but hey, beggars cannot be choosers. Igor was in town, and there was no way I was going to miss that.
The concert started at the highly civilized time of 6:00 PM in the crowded auditorium with Luigi Cherubini’s high-spirited overture to his 1803 opera Anacréon, which would provide the Italian touch for the evening. Under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano, the Orchestra di Santa Cecilia’s current music director, the musicians vividly highlighted the little gem’s famous crescendos as well as its prodigious ambition in scope and complexity, on which a fellow composer would soon build on.
Enters Ludwig van Beethoven, a huge fan of Cherubini’s, and his piano concerto No 3 of 1803 (What a year!), the one in which he found his own voice and contributed to ushering in the Romantic era. In other words, a milestone. This was also about the time he realized he had started losing his hearing, which had in all likelihood brought overwhelming feelings of devastation and hopelessness to the then 30-year-old composer and musician who was hitting his stride big time.
After being greeted with an excited round of applaud, Igor Levit parked his endearingly nerdy silhouette at the piano and, as the orchestra began to play, patiently waited with the rest of us for the agonizingly long-delayed second exposition to make his entrance, occasionally putting the fingers on the keyboard in preparation for what was to come. Well, Germans say that anticipation is half the fun, don’t they?
As soon as he started playing, my three year-long wait finally came to an end last Saturday evening in Rome, and I am happy to say that Levit’s quietly illuminating performance left no doubt about his prodigious talent and commitment. He is well-known for focusing on Beethoven, among others, and all that relentless dedication is clearly paying off in spades. Beside the expected flawless technique, his gift for bringing out the delicate poetry (weren’t these lilting arpeggios just heavenly?), the gorgeous lyricism, the intense drama and the bold virtuosity of the work resulted in a captivating interpretation that managed to neatly combine grandeur and intimacy.
Even better, in response to our extended and delirious ovation, he came back with an unidentified, ethereally dreamlike piece (More Beethoven?) that made me even more grateful for being there, while still feeling a tiny pang in my heart about the lost opportunity back in New York.
After intermission, in a decidedly less crowded auditorium, we jumped from the early to the late 19th century with Jean Sibelius and Richard Strauss. For the occasion, Pappano, who seems to enjoy an exceptionally warm rapport with the Roman audience, took the mike to explain to us that, although the title of the Sibelius piece meant “A legend”, the composer left no clue about its meaning, except that it was “an expression of a state of mind”.
It contains some melodies from Finnish folk tunes though, and Pappano couldn’t resist having the audience try to tackle some of them during an impromptu sing-along session. Although he eventually declared himself kind of satisfied, he pointed out that we were worse than the Friday audience, who were worse than the Thursday audience. I guess that grade inflation and positive reinforcement haven’t made it to this side of the pond yet.
Sibelus being one of my favorite composers, I was eager to discover a major work of his that I had never heard before. And I was thrilled when the piece turned out to be a resolutely modern, wonderfully atmospheric yet firmly down-to-earth, symphonic poem that was, to my ears at least, subtly evocative of the stark landscapes of his native country. The orchestra did not let the lack of clues throw them off and delivered a self-confident take on the enigmatic composition.
Richard Strauss being another of my favorite composers, I was just about as eager to discover a major work of his that I had never heard before in Till Eulenspiegel, which, far from having mysterious origins, was inspired by the adventures of the medieval German peasant folk hero or trickster, depending on your tolerance of practical jokes.
The piece turned out to be an unforgivingly vivacious symphonic poem that drew out a particularly colorful narration from the orchestra. Although it won't be one of my favorite works by Strauss, I did appreciate its relentless inventiveness, sheer entertainment value, and its smart conclusion emphasizing the irrepressible nature of the spirit of rebellion, which wrapped up the evening on a refreshingly upbeat note.