Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra concluded its American tour with the second of two concerts arranged through the Great Performers Series of the San Francisco Symphony. Once again the conductor was General and Artistic Director Antoni Wit, and the soloist was pianist Yulianna Avdeeva. This time the program consisted of only two works, both highly familiar to regular concert goers. For the first half Avdeeva performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 73 (“Emperor”) concerto, the last of his five piano concertos; and the second half was devoted to Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 88 symphony in G major.
The best news is that, through her approach to Beethoven, Avdeeva emerged in a much better light than she had on Sunday evening with her disappointing account of Frédéric Chopin’s F minor piano concerto (Opus 21). Beethoven probably deserves at least some of the credit, providing Avdeeva with far more substance through which she could display both her technical command and her personal sense of expressiveness. (To be fair, Chopin was not yet twenty when he began his Opus 21, while Beethoven was 40 when his Opus 73 was given its first performance. Mind you, Chopin never made it to 40; but it would appear that Avdeeva was better disposed to a mature effort from the beginning of the nineteenth century than with a fledgling attempt several decades later.)
There are those who tend to dismiss Beethoven’s Opus 73 for an excess of bombast and virtuosity, all in the service of a “heroic” rhetoric. Avdeeva certainly did not hold back on the virtuosity, but she performed with a stronger sense of foreground and background than she had shown on Sunday, establishing a more convincing sense of conversation between soloist and ensemble, the heart of concerto form as practiced by both Beethoven and his many predecessors. In this respect her engagement with Wit seemed far more attentive. Relieved of the onerous demand of accounting for every last one of Chopin’s notes, she could focus on the logic and rhetoric behind the flow of Beethoven’s phrases, whether through instrumental “dialogue” or in the “monologue” of her solo passages.
From Wit’s point of few, Beethoven’s maturity was particularly evident in his approach to instrumentation. The score accounts for strings, winds, and brass with equal attention for all; and Wit accounted for the many engaging ways in which all these voices interleave. This probably facilitated Avdeeva’s ability to fit in as one of the many voices in the overall drama, so to speak, rather just come off as the soloist in the spotlight.
Having found her place in the concerto, she could then take over the spotlight for her encore. Her selection was the final Gigue movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s B-flat major partita (BWV 825), another approach to the interleaving of contrapuntal voices in an entirely different style. For those unfamiliar with this movement, it is one of Bach’s more virtuosic efforts. The right hand must account for both the upper and lower voices, bouncing between the two while the left hand provides a supporting harmonic progression through a stream of arpeggios. This is an elegantly conceived structure, but one assumes that Bach saw the wit behind the enormous leaps required of the right hand. Avdeeva clearly caught that sense of wit, batting the thematic line back and forth, almost as if it were a tennis ball, and even letting a smile crack through her otherwise stern intensity. Thus, by the time we got to intermission, both Bach and Beethoven had been honorably served.
Following the intermission the Dvořák Opus 88 symphony provided an excellent opportunity for the full orchestral ensemble to display all of its colors. As he had done with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky on Sunday evening, Wit managed all those colors through his attentiveness to every instrument at his command, all paced by a keen sense of tempo through which each of the composer’s full-throated moments of climax emerged with fiery urgency. (Also, as he had done on Sunday, he conducted this symphony without a score, although this time he used his baton.) The result was an excellently-conceived journey from the meditatively prolonged opening theme of the first movement to the uninhibited revelry in the final variation of the theme of the fourth movement.
Wit then continued the revelry with the fifth of the Hungarian dances composed by Dvořák’s friend and champion, Johannes Brahms, given as his first encore. This was a lively way to maintain the high spirits that had been established, and the vigorous account made for a real treat. Wit then concluded the evening with a reprise of his Sunday “international” tribute encores, coupling Wojciech Kilar’s polonaise with John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”