In contrast to Beethoven's other piano concertos, the Fourth begins with the unaccompanied soloist repeating quiet chords, creating a kind of portal that opens onto a magical world. Few soloists have found the key to the other side as immediately as American pianist Jonathan Biss when he played the work Friday with the Los Angeles Philharmonic led by French conductor Ludovic Morlot at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Between the first and the second chords, Biss, 27, established an uncanny feeling for the deep structure of the work, out of which it all emerged, with every detail falling into its rightful place. Biss was in no hurry, had no interest in grandstanding and showed no aim other than devoting himself to the music. In an age of hotshot pianism, his approach was gratefully welcome.
His judgments were expert, gracious and mature; his virtuosity, lyrically effortless. His range of dynamic and color was subtle and varied, although he may find greater contrasts and inner drama in the future. But he already plays like a seasoned master in the refined Viennese tradition, in which the details are seasoned and finely honed but subservient to the whole.
Biss had a perfect collaborator in Morlot, 33, who was making his Philharmonic debut. The maestro from Lyon -- who has guest-conducted the major orchestras in, among other cities, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Birmingham, England -- was equally dedicated to putting the music first.
He riveted his attention on Biss, matching the pianist's phrasings and dynamics with uncommon sympathy but also without scanting the orchestra's sensitive contributions.
Morlot opened the concert with a luminous, ravishing, memorable account of the Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner's "Lohengrin," paying due homage to the composer's blend of spirituality and sensuous surface.
Post-intermission, he turned to one of Dvorak's lesser-known tone poems, "Othello," then closed the program with the Suite from Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier."
Premiered in 1892, a year before the "New World" Symphony, "Othello" is full of passion and drama, reflecting at times the sound world of that symphony and occasionally even anticipating that of Dvorak's compatriot, Leos Janacek. If Morlot didn't squeeze the last ounce of drama from the piece, which admittedly seemed at times vague and bloated, he did wrest lots of excitement from the final pages.
On the other hand, he led a sumptuous account of the "Rosenkavalier" Suite, gorgeously played by the orchestra, with sensitive solos by, among others, concertmaster Martin Chalifour, clarinet Lorin Levee, trumpeter Don Green and horn player William Lane.
No firebrand on the podium, Morlot is modest almost to a fault. It would be easy to underestimate him. That would be a mistake.