CSO sparkles in Europe

Nikolai Lugansky
Cincinnati Enquirer

FRANKFURT, Germany - The first concert should set the tone for the whole tour, said Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra music director Paavo Järvi on Friday in Frankfurt, Germany, during a rehearsal for the first concert of an important European tour. So the orchestra's electric performance today in Frankfurt's Alte Oper, as well as the Frankfurters' enthusiastic response should be a prelude of good things to come.

Frankfurt has long been a musical center, and a home to distinguished orchestras and conductors (it is the birthplace of former CSO music director Max Rudolf).

The Alte Oper, built in 1881, destroyed in World War II and rededicated in 1981 by former CSO music director Michael Gielen, is also one of Järvi's musical homes. He directs the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra here, and this week his contract was extended to 2010.

There's been a great deal of European press coverage for this tour. Today's "Die Welt" and "International Herald Tribune" both devoted pages to Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony's concert.

With a lot riding on this concert, the tension was palpable in rehearsal, as the orchestra, which arrived in Germany on Wednesday morning, prepared Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C Major, "The Great." The result was a performance of freshness, vigor and tremendous intensity. After bouquets of flowers and many ovations from the packed house, Järvi supplied two encores before the evening ended.

At 8 p.m. sharp, the musicians walked out, European style, and took their places. The 2,400-seat hall, a cavernous shoe-box shape lined in warm wood with seats behind the orchestra and boxes up the sides, has problematic acoustics, and textures can sound muddy. The orchestra was placed close to the audience, which created a great presence of string sound, but the winds and brass were not as prominent as usual.

The program opened with no overture, but Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, with tour soloist Nikolai Lugansky. As last week in Music Hall, the 36-year-old Russian pianist's playing was as spectacular for the subtlety of color and atmosphere he achieved as it was for his ability to tackle cascades of fiendishly difficult virtuosities.

Järvi and the orchestra breathed as one with the soloist, making for a reading that was thrillingly spontaneous. The normally reserved German audience cheered, stomped their feet and applauded in rhythmic unison until the pianist supplied an encore, a glittering Prelude by Rachmaninoff.

After intermission, Schubert's Ninth, a work famed for its "heavenly length," was enthralling from start to finish. The opening horn call was beautifully sounded by principal horn Elizabeth Freimuth and newly appointed second horn Lisa Conway. The cello sound had incomparable warmth, and the winds and brass spoke authoritatively.

Järvi's reading bristled with intensity. He cultivated a rustic, Viennese character, encouraging bite in the strings, crisp attack and vivid details. There was a real sense of drama, yet the conductor never lost sight of Schubert's lyricism.

For the first encore, the Cincinnati Symphony turned gypsy in Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5 and concluded with the gem by Sibelius, "Valse Triste."

A man behind me summed it up: "Phantastisch!"

The orchestra leaves by train for Munich on Saturday, where it performs Saturday night.