Solzhenitsyn's return to the Chamber Orchestra offers a rich experience

Posted: March 07, 2012

Any longtime observer of Ignat Solzhenitsyn knows he has two distinct musical personalities depending on whether he's conducting or at the keyboard. Seldom have the differences been so apparent in the same concert - making the conductor laureate's return to the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia Monday at the Kimmel Center a richer-than-usual experience.

The double personality isn't unusual. Christoph Eschenbach is a dapper classicist at the keyboard and anything but that when conducting. Solzhenitsyn is the opposite - a conductor with the big picture in mind and a pianist who uses most any means to touch bottom. His keyboard personality won out when doing double duty with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. Solzhenitsyn let his hands hover over the keyboard at length before striking the piece's famous opening chords, and doing so with a descriptiveness suggesting Orpheus girding himself on a journey to the underworld.

A promising beginning, though his brand of gravitas sometimes slowed the tempo to such an extreme that the music's thread was momentarily lost. Tempos could stray so far from their starting point that they needed to be abruptly brought back up to speed to keep the concerto from grinding to a halt. So the performance wasn't an overall success - but many moments were unmissable.

Though certain aspects had obviously been rehearsed, the speed, direction, and thus meaning of any given musical idea seemed decided upon on the spot, thanks also to an orchestra that was with Solzhenitsyn every step of the way with equally deep responses. The peak, for me, was the second-movement solo piano cadenza - a crisis in music if there ever was one - that fanned out to a fortissimo before seeming to recede spatially.

Solzhenitsyn the conductor was much more attuned to the overall tempo scheme in a relatively fleet reading of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 that, in contrast to the concerto, never strained at the seams, even though the symphony has more numerous and heterogeneous moving parts than the concerto.

The great funeral-march fugue of the second movement sounded unusually dire without any outward distortion. By giving the winds a distinctively tight blend, Solzhenitsyn specified their meaning. So it was, too, with so much of the symphony's inner mechanics. A triplet of notes in one phrase said something completely different in the next phrase.

Obviously, I prefer Solzhenitsyn the conductor. But overall, the concert was a great instance of the alternative experience offered by the Chamber Orchestra. By no means does this group have the surface glamour of the Philadelphia Orchestra, but the greater prominence of the winds afforded by a smaller string section (plus the closer proximity to the music afforded by the Perelman Theater) allowed a more fundamental encounter with Beethoven. Next time I hear the Philadelphia Orchestra play this music, I'm likely to enjoy its string sound anew, but will be in a better place to appreciate what's underneath.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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