A familiar masterpiece and a hidden gem

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A familiar masterpiece and a hidden gem

Post by Ricordanza » Sun Jan 22, 2023 5:43 pm

In the spring of 2019, the Philadelphia Orchestra announced that the upcoming season would feature the underrepresented work of female composers. It was during the 2019-2020 season that I first heard the music of 19th Century French composer Louise Farrenc—her Symphony No. 2. To its credit, the Orchestra has continued to include the work of female composers in its programming in subsequent seasons, and on Thursday night, January 19th, the audience was treated to a performance of Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3.
The program notes reveal that Farrenc, unlike other women of that era, received a fair amount of recognition during her lifetime as a pianist, composer and teacher—including a 30-year career as a professor of piano at the Paris Conservatory. That recognition included praise from her contemporaries. For example, the famous composer Hector Berlioz commented that one of her overtures was “well written and orchestrated with a talent rare among women.” Today, that may sound like a back-handed compliment, if not downright sexist, but In Farrenc’s day, that was a positive endorsement of her work.

Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3 received a handful of performances during her lifetime, but the piece has since shrunk into obscurity. This week’s performances were the first by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

My impressions: it’s a piece that belongs on concert programs and deserves to be heard. Its style is firmly rooted in early to mid-19th century music and it’s traditionally structured in four movements. Although there are hints of other composers of the era, it’s a work that is clearly individual to this composer. While all four movements had appealing moments, I found the second and third movements the most intriguing. The second movement—a slow movement marked Adagio cantabile—begins modestly and softly, but slowly and powerfully builds toward a full-throated conclusion. The third movement Scherzo is fittingly titled for its light touch and engages the listener with its abundance of musical ideas.

The audience responded warmly, if not very enthusiastically. I wish the composer could have been present to take a bow and enjoy her work being performed to full advantage by a world-class orchestra under the leadership of its outstanding Music Director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

After intermission, it was time for one of the most familiar works in the literature for piano and orchestra, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. The soloist, South Korean-born Seong-Jin Cho (a winner of the Chopin International Competition among other honors) and the Orchestra collaborated perfectly in producing a memorable performance of this masterpiece. I have heard other performances where the first movement is slowed down excessively to emphasize the “solidity” of this work. Not so this evening. While maintaining a steady but magisterial pace, pianist and orchestra delivered a passionate and dramatic rendition of this movement. And I must add that Cho navigated the formidable technical challenges of this work without apparent difficulty. But it was not all thunder and lightning—the third movement dialogue between cello and piano was rendered with great beauty and sensitivity, thanks to long-time principal cellist Hai-Ye Ni.

Pieces like the Brahms second concerto, because of the frequency of performance, are often given the dismissively pejorative label of “warhorse.” However, when one hears a performance such as this where soloist and orchestra put their interpretive stamp on every passage, the listener can, once again, appreciate the genius of this great work.

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