The announcement came by email just two days before the concert: Andre Watts, scheduled to perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Philadelphia Orchestra for the series beginning on February 2, was unable to appear because he had not sufficiently recovered from prostate cancer treatments. In his place, the 29-year-old French pianist, Lise de la Salle, would perform the same concerto with the orchestra.
I had mixed feelings in response to this announcement. I’m a long-time admirer of Watts and was anxious to hear him once again as he marked the 60th anniversary of his first appearance with the orchestra (at age 10!). And the reason for his non-appearance certainly hit close to home. On the other hand, it’s always good to have the opportunity to hear a performer for the first time, especially one who has received very positive reaction in the classical music world.
When I’m in the mood for grand and mighty, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor,” fills the bill. But No. 4 is a work of far more nuance and subtlety. It’s the first of his piano concertos that I heard, and it remains my favorite. The unique character of this work is evident from the very beginning. Tossing aside the conventions of the day, which mandated an orchestral introduction for any concerto, Beethoven begins instead with the solo piano, playing a simple but elegant theme with a series of chords and one rapid scale. The orchestra responds with a slight variation of the theme in a different key, and the wonderful interplay between piano and orchestra proceeds from there. De la Salle and the orchestra, led by guest conductor Fabio Luisi, conveyed the nobility and refinement of this movement, although they could be forgiven for being a touch out of synch in a couple of places.
The second movement is even more unusual. Some call it a dialogue between the piano and the orchestral strings, but it’s more like a debate. The orchestra keeps uttering an urgent, anxious message, while the piano responds each time with a soothing calm. Eventually, the orchestra succumbs and matches the soloist’s mood, so the piano wins the debate!
The lively third and final movement leaves behind the sublime and the drama for just some good, uninhibited fun, and here, de la Salle displayed some of her most glittering passagework. But with the sparkle, there was still refinement.
The audience responded enthusiastically, and when de la Salle sat down at the piano for an encore, she turned to the audience and playfully asked, “I don’t know which encore to play, Debussy or Rachmaninoff?” Rachmaninoff won by a voice vote (no surprise in Philadelphia), and de la Salle responded with a dazzling rendition of one of the Etudes Tableaux.
Two orchestral favorites completed the program for this concert. The evening began with a lively performance of Weber’s Overture to Oberon. The concluding work was Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D Minor. This symphony may be somewhat out of fashion in some classical music circles, but with its melodic richness, dramatic sweep, and beautiful solo passages by the English Horn and other winds, it remains popular in Philadelphia. Thursday night’s performance was certainly well received by the audience.