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Review: Riveting Schubert and a sparkling debut at the Hollywood Bowl

Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi made his Hollywood Bowl debut on Thursday.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Andrew Manze ended his two-concert stint as guest conductor at the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday night with an impressive rendition of Schubert’s “Great” C-Major Symphony. The score runs nearly an hour, yet remarkably most of the 5,000 people in attendance seemed riveted to their seats.

Indeed, Schubert’s 1826 work emerged as somehow modern in Manze’s rhythmically precise and lyrical account. With its warm colors, subtly interwoven textures and a gentle, organic approach to dynamics and tempo, the score sounded at times like a precursor to one of Morton Feldman’s 20th century explorations in rhythm and pitch shadings.

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Certainly, Schubert’s symphony, which took more than a half-century to find a place in the repertory, was daring in its own time, not least for its technical difficulties. Strings had never been required to play 88 consecutive bars of triplet eighth notes, for example, and the trombones were asked to find new colorations. Listeners are still faced with the score’s length and demands, which prompted some walkouts at the Bowl during the third movement Scherzo.

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For the most part, though, Manze and the Los Angeles Philharmonic maintained enough rhythmic drive to buoy the symphony, from its grand opening theme, performed with nobility by horn player James Nickel, to the other-worldly oboe solos in the Andante con moto, courtesy of Anne Marie Gabriele. But some energy and drive was lost in the concluding two movements. The Allegro finale, for instance, came in at a longish 14 minutes. In their highly regarded readings from the 1950s, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Josef Krips took under 12.

Andrew Manze conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl.
Andrew Manze conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times )

Another snag was the Bowl’s sometimes-anemic amplification system, which made it hard to tell whether the trombones were having intonation problems. And though the strings played well, heard outdoors they are never going to sound naturally warm and full. It didn’t help that the camerawork for the Bowl’s big screens felt random, in one instance focusing on the second violins while the horns were featured.

The Phil last performed the symphony in 2012, led by Christoph Eschenbach, and this performance with Manze will doubtless function as valuable early preparation for the upcoming Schubert symphony cycle led by Gustavo Dudamel in May in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

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The concert opened with an unaffected, alternately sparkling and passionately inward rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, featuring Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi in his L.A. Phil debut.

Piemontesi, 33, counts Alfred Brendel and Murray Perahia among his mentors. Although he shares Brendel’s insistence on musical integrity and attention to detail and Perahia’s Romantic spirit, Piemontesi showed an unpredictable temperament all his own, beginning the famous hushed opening bars in the first movement Allegro with a brief glissando. For a moment, it wasn’t clear which concerto he was about to play. Perhaps intended as an attention-getter, Piemontesi’s gambit reduced any possibility of a too self-consciously poetic entrance before the orchestra replied.

Using Beethoven’s dramatic cadenza, the pianist also displayed a fiery quality, playing in ways that felt both epic and intimate. Throughout, Manze and the orchestra proved sensitive collaborators in this most dialogue-intensive of Beethoven’s concertos.

Piemontesi returned with an apt, evocative encore: a delicately rippling account of “At Lake Wallenstadt” from the first suite of Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage,” inspired by his travels in Switzerland.

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Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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