Review by David Richards
Toronto ON March 30th 2018
TSO Principal Cellist Joseph Johnson
Photo Credit: bohuang.ca
Pianist Inon Barnatan and Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève
Photo Credit: Nick Wons
Toronto Symphony hits it out of the ballpark with Brahms and Rachmaninoff!
Pianist Inon Barnaton, Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève and TSO
Photo Credit: Nick Wons
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The program opened with Denève, Barnatan and the TSO performing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op.83. Denève, a conductor who works with great precision and flair, had the orchestra playing as a finely tuned ensemble. Barnatan was in complete control of one of the most challenging concertos of the repertoire. We have become accustomed to listening to this work on recordings in which the piano part is overpowering. Here there was balance. The work had great excitement and energy coming from both orchestra and piano; the most poignant moments came in the lyrically beautiful passages. At such times, Denève kept the orchestra at a level to allow Barnatan to play with exquisite sensitivity. The third movement with the cello solo performed by TSO’s Principal Cellist Joseph Johnson was spectacularly spell-binding. The lyrical interplay between cello and orchestra was magical. In the same movement, the piano and clarinet combination that provided its own sense of loveliness. The movement’s concluding movements with piano, cello and orchestra were incredibly moving. As an encore following the concerto, Barnatan and Johnson teamed up to perform an equally beautiful movement of Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata.
In the second half, TSO performed Sergey Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Op. 45. Here the orchestra expanded to over ninety players including harp, piano, alto saxophone and enough percussion to require six percussionists. The driving rhythm of the opening set the tone. The work was at times haunting with solos from virtually every section. English horn, saxophone, trumpet, oboe, flute and clarinet were all outstanding. In the middle movement, Concert Master Johnathan Crow was superb as always in his solo. There were of course the long flowing melodies that Rachmaninoff is famous for, and there was the excitement of rhythmic energy, brass fanfares and a barrage of percussive effects. With the contrasting dance themes within each of the three movements, it was easy to imagine the work choreographed as a ballet. Rachmaninoff showed his nostalgia for Russia with references to Russian church music. The final moments of the third movement were totally uplifting. This was an impressive performance. A great conductor was directing an orchestra very familiar with the work having performed it on tour and recorded it not too many years ago.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra's season continues with performances conducted by Sir Andrew Davis on April 5th and 7th at Roy Thomson Hall and April 8th at George Weston Recital Hall. Violinist Ray Chen will perform Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Also on the program will be music by Mendelssohn and Stenhammar as well as Symphony No. 5 by Jean Sibelius.
This afternoon, when it seemed like baseball and opening day were on the minds of everyone else in the Toronto, it was remarkable that an audience still managed to gather at Roy Thomson Hall for a memorable concert by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Stéphane Denève and pianist Inon Barnatan in a program of Brahms and Rachmaninoff.
Barnatan was a last-minute replacement for pianist Lars Vogt who, with a slipped disc was told by his doctors not to fly. Barnatan was well prepared to say the least. The Israeli pianist who lives in New York City just last week filled in for another ailing pianist, performing the same concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. Barnatan performed with the TSO just two years ago, and since has performed with orchestras in Leipzig, Hong Kong, London, Helsinki, Chicago, Baltimore and Seattle in addition to solo, chamber music and collaborative work with Renée Fleming and cellist Alisa Weilerstein.
As for Denève, he may well have been on the list of potential suitors for the TSO’s directorship, but his appointment to the St. Louis Symphony effective 2019 would likely preclude the possibility. He currently has a calendar of guest conducting engagements to go along with his current positions as Music Director of Brussels Philharmonic and Principal Guest Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.