San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Herbert Blomstedt (conductor)
Leon Fleisher (piano)
5 October 2005 - Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
Pity the poor composer who writes a new work for a specific performer only to have the recipient reject it outright.
Such was the case with Paul Hindemith's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, which made its long-overdue U.S. premiere, with pianist Leon Fleisher as soloist, on the San Francisco Symphony's program Wednesday night at Davies Symphony Hall.
The concerto's history is somewhat convoluted, but its moral is clear: Call it "Beware the volatile pianist," or "Be careful whom you write for." Commissioned by pianist Paul Wittgenstein who had lost his right arm in battle during World War I Hindemith composed the work in 1923. The completed score, titled "Piano Music with Orchestra," Op. 29, became Wittgenstein's property upon completion. But the pianist didn't like it; he never performed it himself and didn't allow anyone else to play it during his lifetime.
Fortunately, time has a way of sorting these things out, and the concerto was discovered in 2002 amid a cache of Wittgenstein's papers in a Pennsylvania farmhouse. Fleisher and the Berlin Philharmonic gave its world premiere in 2004. Wednesday's concert, which repeats tonight at Davies, represents its belated American debut.
It was worth the wait. Led by S.F. Symphony conductor laureate Herbert Blomstedt, the performance revealed a score of enormous zest, drive, wit and beauty. Whatever Wittgenstein's reasons were for rejecting it (and it must be noted that the pianist also commissioned, then refused to play, Prokofiev's Fourth Piano Concerto), they don't seem to have had anything to do with the music.
Composed in four uninterrupted movements this is a concerto in name only the work skitters out of the gate with the first notes of the introduction and keeps accelerating unimpeded into the busy second movement. The effect is complex, vibrant and oddly jaunty; Hindemith, who played every instrument in the orchestra, gives each section something brilliant to do.
After the headlong rush of the opening movements, the seductive slow movement comes as something of a surprise. Over a backdrop of cellos and basses, the piano is joined by the English horn (gracefully played Wednesday by Julie Ann Giacobassi) in a series of long, languid lines taken up by solo flute (played by Robin McKee). The finale returns to the biting rhythms and quicksilver melodies of the introduction.
Fleisher was an ideal soloist for the work. Playing with a keen blend of force and precision, the pianist met the score's technical demands with complete assurance. It was impossible to escape the irony of his performance; Fleisher's career was sidelined by a right-hand injury 40 years ago, and he's just begun to play two-handed works very recently. If not for Wittgenstein's decision, the pianist would have had the score at the beginning of his hiatus, rather than the end.
Fleisher also joined the orchestra in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major, putting to rest any doubts about his right hand. Fluid playing, crystalline articulation and uncommon depth of feeling marked his performance (which featured Mozart's original cadenzas.) The orchestra hadn't played this beautifully meditative work since 1993, and Blomstedt led it with tremendous warmth and elan.
That feeling of warmth carried over after intermission into an expansive reading of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Blomstedt's unassuming leadership yielded brisk pacing, glorious orchestra color and texture and a winning sense of unity throughout.
This week's program is dedicated to the memory of clarinetist David Breeden. Breeden joined the S.F. Symphony in 1972 and served as principal clarinetist from 1980 until his death in June.
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