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ARCHIVE: HSO (January 2017)

Originally published 1/12/2017


Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, (“Emperor”), was the featured work on the Houston Symphony concert at Jones Hall on Thursday. The soloist was the twenty-six-year-old prize-winning Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov. James Gaffigan conducted a unique program that began with the piano concerto and included Strauss’ “Don Juan” and Liszt’s “Les préludes” on the second half.


Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto was part of the composer’s middle period, a time that produced some of his most highly regarded works including the “Eroica,” 5th and 6th symphonies. “Emperor” was begun in 1808 and completed in 1809 during Napoleon’s invasion and bombardment of Vienna, Beethoven’s home. Beethoven did not choose the nickname of the work, and likely would not have approved given his anger at Napoleon for declaring himself emperor in 1804. “Emperor” applies mostly to the grandeur of the first movement, which begins with three majestic orchestral chords embellished by the piano, and themes that have a martial quality.


Behzod Abduraimov has a growing international reputation, having received praise for his virtuosity and tonal variety. His technical command was in full evidence Thursday evening, with virtually perfect execution of the “Emperor,” a concerto designed by Beethoven to challenge the rising pianists of his day. Abduraimov took a very “classical” approach to the concerto, with restrained phrasing and steady tempos. In the first movement, it seemed the young pianist would have preferred softer and more delicate dynamics at times, were it not for some imbalances with the orchestra. Conductor Gaffigan rarely insisted on pianissimo dynamics, making it necessary for Abduraimov to play out more. Some scale passages leading into orchestra entrances were not perfectly aligned by Gaffigan, and neither was the last chord. Balance issues within the orchestra were evident where descending bassoon passages were lost in the texture. For their part, the Houston Symphony played quite well. Tricky passages, such as the viola part leading into the recapitulation, were excellent.


The second movement, an ethereal nocturne, allowed Abduraimov to explore more sensitive dynamics and expression in dialogue with the orchestra. This was not consistently supported by Gaffigan, whose shaping of the exquisite string lines did not always provide empathy with the soloist.


The third movement is a joyous rondo, alternating between country-dance foot stomping and dancing on tiptoes. While note-perfect, Abduraimov could have provided more contrast to the ethereal second movement through the indicated sforzandos and implied bounciness. There was fine ensemble throughout, but Gaffigan’s leading of the timpani ritardando at the end of the movement seemed excessive. The audience responded with enthusiastic and prolonged applause for Abduraimov, and Gaffigan recognized several wind players.


The second half of the concert featured the Houston Symphony in not one, but two blockbuster symphonic poems– Richard Strauss’ “Don Juan” and Franz Liszt’s “Les preludes.” Similar in many ways, and with almost identical orchestrations, they provided the means to show the orchestra to full advantage, confirming that the Houston Symphony is a virtuoso ensemble.


James Gaffigan did an excellent job of leading the two works, with more success in “Les preludes,” the more rhythmically structured of the two. In “Don Juan,” his gestures were designed to show musicality, sometimes at the expense of internal clarity and security in the orchestra. Given the extreme technical difficulty of the music, it is best if there is no swashbuckling on the podium. The Liszt showed Gaffigan at his best of the evening. He kept the massive forces cohesive, along with nuanced dynamics and sensitive phrasings. Often played badly, Gaffigan’s interpretation of this warhorse was as fine as one could hope for.


It would be easy to run out of superlatives in describing the playing of the Houston Symphony in these two works.


“Don Juan” would be nothing without French horns and trumpets, the instruments that personify the title character. The stellar horn section featured a cohesive sound and fine solos by principal William VerMeulen. Principal trumpet Mark Hughes played confidently, providing powerful and stylish solos throughout. Oboist Jonathan Fisher was wonderfully seductive in his extended solo, and he was joined by VerMeulen, flutist Aralee Dorough, clarinetist Mark Nuccio, and bassoonist Rian Craypo.


This piece appears on virtually every orchestra audition list for string players due to its extreme difficulty. The string sections played brilliantly, with treacherous exposed parts being particularly well played. Visiting concertmaster Camilla Kjøll (Gaffigan’s 1st concertmaster in the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra) sounded lovely in two violin solos.


“Les préludes” again featured the French horn section in beautiful quartets, with 4th horn Ian Mayton giving ample support in the very low bottom part. The woodwinds added many lyrical solos, and the strings were brilliant and poetic as required. Trumpets and percussion added to the marziale, or martial character, and the low brass were sonically impressive in the maestoso sections.

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