By Dennis D. Rooney
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 is no longer a rarity in the concert hall, but some orchestras have yet to perform it, and that included the Palm Beach Symphony until its concert March 7 at the Kravis Center as this season’s fourth Masterworks program.
The audience assembled in Dreyfoos Hall was expecting to hear the Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (in C minor, Op. 37), which was to open the program. Earlier in the day, however, she had withdrawn, and her replacement was the Italian Rodolfo Leone, winner of the first prize in the 2017 International Beethoven Piano Competition Vienna.
But the concerto was preceded by the Ukrainian national anthem.
Beethoven wrote his concerto in 1800 but withheld it until 1803, when he was soloist in the premiere in Vienna, basically improvising much of the solo part from a score that his page turner called mostly empty. “At most, on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me were scribbled down to serve as clues for him.”
The C minor tonality casts a romantic mood over the opening in contrast to the bright major keys (C, B-flat) of the composer’s earlier concertos and shares many of the hallmarks of his “middle” period. The piano embraces both intimacy and declamation in its traversal of the three movements. Its large dimensions point the way to the Fourth Concerto, but lacks the perfect balance of that future work.
Leone’s playing was fleet but too near the surface of the keys. His sound was smooth but rather one-dimensional, and he seemed too interested in playing fast. The orchestral support that he received did nothing to lend interest. Poor articulation and lack of tonal focus in the strings gave textures a spongy quality; in fact, deficiencies in intonation, articulation and ensemble throughout the orchestra suggested that most of the rehearsal time had gone to the Mahler symphony, which, when heard after an abbreviated intermission, for the most part went very well.
Concertmistress Evija Ozolins played the scordatura violin part in the scherzo with authentic ghostliness. The winds and brass distinguished themselves, with praise to the reliable horns and to the gleaming sound of principal trumpet Kevin Karabell, but while the strings managed nice portamentos, they were often deficient in focus and sounded underpowered most of the time, most tellingly in passages of searing expression.
Schwarz led a solid exposition of the score, albeit one with little eloquence, but anyone hearing it for the first time would not have been led astray. In the finale, where the soprano soloist depicts a child’s view of Heaven, Emily Finke sounded overparted. Mahler’s instructions to avoid vibrato were ignored, the pitch center of the voice sounded audibly hollowed out, and the text was sung unintelligibly.