Sunday, March 8, 2015

Review: Richmond Symphony

Tito Muñoz conducting
with Stanislav Khristenko, piano
March 7, Richmond CenterStage

Tito Muñoz, music director of the Phoenix Symphony in Arizona, led a finely articulated yet sweepingly expressive account of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony in a guest-conducting date with the Richmond Symphony, obtaining one of the most successful performances this orchestra has given in recent memory.

The Schumann capped a Masterworks program that also introduced Richmonders to Stanislav Khristenko, a Ukrainian-born pianist whose tone production and phrasing often recalled the music-making of Emil Gilels.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466, may not have been an ideal vehicle for Khristenko’s artistry; but his encore, Schumann’s song “Widmung” in Liszt’s piano transcription, showcased his technique and interpretive bent most persuasively.

Khristenko and Muñoz emphasized the proto-romanticism of the Mozart concerto, effectively reminding listeners of why this work (and “Don Giovanni”) remained popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries while the rest of Mozart’s music was rarely heard.

The pianist and conductor played up the concerto’s contrasts of turbulence and wistful dreaminess, but with rather murky articulation and blunted accents. In lyrical passages of the first movement, Khristenko seemed to be playing Mozart through the filter of Chopin. The performance was most convincing in the central romanza, paced as a fairly brisk andante and phrased lovingly. Khristenko used the familiar Beethoven cadenza in the first movement, and his own stormy yet witty cadenza in the finale.

He made the Schumann-Liszt “Widmung” the epitome of the nobly expressive German-romantic love song, elaborated with brilliant pianistic touches that, in Khristenko’s hands, never sounded excessive.

Schumann’s symphonies are difficult to pull off. His orchestrations are oddly balanced; for generations, they were thought to be so clumsy that conductors felt free to doctor them. (Gustav Mahler’s re-orchestrations were especially interventionist.) Schumann himself tinkered extensively with the Symphony No. 4 in D minor – chronologically, his second symphony – before its belated publication.

For this performance, Muñoz chose the standard Schumann revision and made it work, quite splendidly, without any noticeable retouching. As in the Mozart, the conductor made the contrast of portent and lyricism the crux of the music. Muñoz spun out long lines of melody and expression, maintaining continuity over four movements played without pauses. His handling of dynamics, notably in the transition between the third and fourth movements, was expert.

The orchestra delivered a surgingly passionate, technically almost faultless performance.

The dark moodiness of the Schumann and Mozart were pre-echoed in the program’s opening selection, Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture, too slow and heavily textured for my taste but nonetheless well-played.