Concert review: Jonathan Biss a sweet antidote to Toronto Symphony’s searing Shostakovich

Jonathan Biss.

Effective concert programmes can assemble pieces that complement each other — or act as vivid contrasts.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra has embraced the latter option this week, as it pairs the much-loved 1845 Piano Concerto by Robert Schumann with the searing, 1957 Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905,” by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Although not the easiest of programme mates, fine performances by everyone involved made for a memorable concert on Wednesday evening at Roy Thomson Hall.

American pianist Jonathan Biss’s easy artistry and silken touch turned the warhorse Schumann concerto into a soft, plush toy – without robbing it of the necessary virtuosic sparkle that every audience wants to hear.

Biss treated the piece like chamber music, carefully sculpting and modulating every phrase and bit of dialogue with the orchestra, his hands caressing the keys with as much tender care as showman’s force.

Music director Peter Oundjian supplied suitably round-edged accompaniment, making for a nicely balanced performance.

The evening opened with the diaphanous and fairly directionless Green for Orchestra (November Steps No. 2), which had been premiered by the Toronto Symphony in 1967, under then music director Seiji Ozawa.

It was a modernist take on Debussy – complete with a quote of the first three notes from Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun in its closing measures.

Neither piece was adequate preparation for the hour of Russian symphonic angst to come.

Shostakovich, a brilliant conveyor of emotion in musical form, fashioned a four-movement depiction of Czarist Russia’s version of the Arab Spring. Shostakovich, a master dramatist, slowly pulls and releases the tension as protesters fall victim to Czar Nicholas II’s armed guards.

This Symphony’s final movement is a sort of coda that recapitulates many of the musical themes heard earlier in the piece. Shostakovich seems to be telling us that leaders of the future may well make the same mistakes as the czar.

History, of course, has proven this to be true time and again.

The Toronto Symphony and its music director delivered the music with utter conviction, so much so that the strange dimmings and brightenings of the stage lights became strangely distracting.

This was all about fine music and interpretation, not the extra trimmings. The concert was orchestral music at its most riveting, which should make for a powerful late-night concert on Saturday, when the TSO performs the Shostakovich only at its late-night Luminato contribution.

The programme that includes Biss and the Schumann concerto repeats on Thursday evening.

For details and tickets, click here.

John Terauds


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