PSO’s Enigmatic Passion frame Ax’s lively performance

As the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Nikolaj Znaider, begin Richard Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, I see Cellos, Flutes, Piccolo, Violins then Horns as the Prelude portion builds. Then I realize that Mr Znaider has no score, and I’m amazed at his ability to remember all the parts and transitions for the entire orchestra. Also consider all the knowledge he has as a soloist on the violin, and add to that the symphonic repertoire of his conducting — that’s quite a feat of memory.

Wagner must be very difficult to remember. I’ve listened to “Tristan und Istolde” perhaps dozens of times, and I would be quite challenged to remember which parts of the orchestra must play at what times, the sequence of events, yet Znaider has it perfect and without a score. He points to the violins, and they play, he gestures to the horns, and they play, time after time he knows exactly where to go next. Sweeping back and forth, also succinct with his waving baton, he brings each musician, each section to the proper place at just the right time. The second part, the ‘Liebestod’ has always given me goosebumps, every single time I hear it. Tonight it’s even better, with the beautiful live sounds coming directly from the PSO at Heinz Hall – here it produces a deeper warm glow, built upon the tender passion that comes directly from the music.

Four opening notes begin Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, but piano soloist Emanuel Ax doesn’t commence for several more bars. Later, the same 4 opening notes are again repeated by the orchestra — this time I see conductor Znaider mouth those notes in a natural pantomime “Buh Buh Bum Buh.” I feel the urge to hum along myself, but I keep my notes to myself, until sometime after the concert.

As violin soloist a few weeks ago, Znaider was sublime; tonight as maestro and conductor, he is supreme; his long reach extends almost into each of the sections of musicians urging the music to come forth irresistibly. Between passages the orchestra grows still as Mr Ax rips through another beautiful sequence of seemingly never-ending rapid notes meandering up and down the length of the keyboard, and conductor Znaider turns toward the pianist and smiles approvingly, as the music continues.

The second movement enlightens my mind with metaphoric images of an artists pallet, arrayed with colors; ready for the musicians to spread abstract amalgamations of melody woven with the hues of harmony into a masterpiece of adroit development. At one point the piccolo and bassoon are performing a two part rhythm which then melds into a tender dance like the sounds of a gentle brook, culminating with the final falling of a leaf gently to a forest floor.

With the third and final movement, the artistic pallet of the last movement is completely changed back to the typical spark of recognizable Mozart counterpoint I am used to. The acumen of the flourishes burst forth, then flirt as if hiding behind various sections of the orchestra. I wonder if some of the piano sections could sound the same if played backwards or forwards, the hands literally go up and down the scale. The killer melody of the piano is surrounded by the harmony of the orchestra, surrounding each other and eventually giving way to a short intermezzo, slowing the tempo, before returning to the original fast paced theme. The sheer volume of notes are distinctly heard, yet build the sound into a full bodied exuberance. The Piccolo and Bassoon interplay near the end, bringing a smile to my face.

Mr Ax, after a standing ovation, beautifully plays Debussy’s “Pagodas” as his encore, striking almost every black key on the keyboard.

Until this evening, I’ve never heard the complete set of Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The finale is recognizable. While each variation has it’s own glorious sound, together they don’t necessarily seem like unified elements sequentially placed in a principal theme, but perhaps enigmatic parts in a hybrid wheel. Taken together the sections combine into one beautiful whole, but I can’t help but wonder if the sections could be played in different orders, and still produce the same interesting result – the “Enigma Variations.” The only exception would be the finale, which seems perfectly suited as only applicable as the ending part in this turning wheel, and the part which is most memorable.

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