Toronto Symphony Orchestra
- Conductor Kuerti Herbig, pianist Anton Kuerti
- At Roy Thomson Hall on Saturday in Toronto
There were just two works on the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Saturday evening: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (the “Emperor”) and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10.
It was a sensible pairing, as both are high-minded and serious works by composers with strong musical personalities. And the TSO displayed similar good sense in choosing a pair of distinguished musicians to bring their interpretations to Roy Thomson Hall. The concert was conducted by Gunther Herbig, and the solo pianist was Anton Kuerti.
Certainly, neither is a stranger to the TSO. Herbig was the orchestra’s conductor from 1988 to 1994, and occasionally drops by for a date with his old band. And Kuerti has probably lost count of the number of engagements he’s played with the TSO since he moved to Toronto in 1965.
Kuerti has also probably lost count of the number of times he’s played the “Emperor” – and it showed, in a personal and even intimate approach. In this, Herbig supported him with control and restraint, keeping the TSO on a short leash.
This was by no means the most athletic of performances: Tempos in the outer movements were slightly relaxed, and pianistic power was held in reserve for moments when it was really needed. Yet there was a sureness of purpose that made Kuerti’s “Emperor” entirely satisfying.
In his hands, details emerged in engaging ways – such as the left-hand chromatic passages in the first movement that took on a life of their own, or the effectively understated measures just before the concerto’s grand ending. And (as always) Kuerti’s evenness of tone was a sheer delight, with carefully shaped runs and trills that were as smooth as silk.
Most impressive was Kuerti’s execution of the second movement. Here, he coaxed a veiled and sensitive tone from his piano that never was never mushy or unfocused. On the contrary, Kuerti shaped this movement into one long, elegant and perfectly formed arc of music.
Herbig displayed a similar depth of mastery in the Shostakovich. He conducted from memory, with a firm beat and economical interpretive gestures, and evidently knows this score like the back of his hand. As with the Beethoven, power was called upon only when really needed, and the TSO was only too happy to oblige him.
Yet from the first hushed notes, there was always a sense of tension, whether implicit or explicit, in the air. (This tension mirrors events in Shostakovich’s life: This symphony was the first he wrote after the Communist party denounced him for “formalism” in 1948.)
Herbig made the opening movement ominous and unsettling, drawing a kind of eerie transparency from the orchestra. And he made the most of Shostakovich’s penchant for sharp contrast in the next movement – a wild ride from the start, and a field day for the TSO’s percussion section.
In the third movement, Herbig emphasized the rhythmic energy of its strangely dance-like sections – and pressed his players relentlessly in “frustrated” passages, where the music seems to be furiously going nowhere.
Finally, Herbig’s hard-edged approach to the last movement brought a sense of bitter irony to the forced joyfulness of the piece. As the brass blasted out Shostakovich’s personal signature (“DSCH,” or the notes D, E flat, C and B), the strings and woodwinds flew through scales with delirium.
The TSO has changed substantially in the years since Herbig was its music director – many of the players now in the orchestra weren’t there in those days. Yet with this concert, the orchestra paid its respects to its former conductor with loyal and committed performances.