Maria João Pires and Herbert Blomstedt Shine with the San Francisco Symphony

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Once, in conversation with a highly-regarded pianist, I asked which present-day players she liked and went through the list of famous names, most of which elicited a noncommittal shrug or a dismissive “Well, he can play the instrument.” But when I mentioned Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires, the response was: “She’s scarily good.” I’ve been familiar with Pires’ work since purchasing her Deutsche Grammaphon recording of Bach Keyboard Suites over ten years ago. I was struck by her uncommon attention to musical gesture, and her consummate control of phrasing in both hands. So it was with no small degree of excitement that I waited for her to emerge onstage to play Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto at Davies Symphony Hall on Friday night.

She cut an unassuming figure, small and smiling, with short grey hair and a mismatched grey blouse and skirt, a small tattoo of a dolphin visible on her right wrist, and a freshness and energy belying her seventy-odd years. As the orchestra gave its serious introduction to the first movement, I closed my eyes to fully absorb the sound. Unfortunately, I soon found myself wishing that they had taken a faster tempo in accordance with the movement’s Allegro con brio designation. Figures that should have been driving were instead plodding, and certain sounds that should have been structural instead seemed soupy.

However, in this more languid tempo one could begin to appreciate the deliberate, authoritative and masterful quality of Pires’ playing, in particular her firm, burnished sound, the conviction of her phrases, and her control of inner voices. Her cadenza was assured and effective, if not quite as fiery as it could have been. It was in the slow movement that she truly began to shine. Her playing was not only carefully phrased, but was attentive to inflection in an almost vocal sense; she seemed able to make the piano sing a variety of vowels and syllables. It occurred to me that, although she is as accurate and assured as the best performers, she never gives the impression of filling time between opportunities to show off her technique, rather, her moments of greatest concentration and engagement are the lyrical ones.

The final Rondo was thrilling from both a technical and expressive point of view. She tackled all the finale’s demands with apparent ease and without sacrificing any of the lyrical genius she displayed in the slow movement. Her hearty sound, melodic sensibility, technical economy, and straight spine reminded me at times of Artur Rubinstein. She was, to borrow a phrase, “scarily good,” and opted not to play an encore after four well-deserved rounds of standing ovation.

The second half of the concert spotlighted the evening’s other great veteran musician, who had been mostly obscured from the audience behind the raised lid of the piano during the Beethoven: eighty-eight-year-old Herbert Blomstedt, who conducted Bruckner’s gargantuan Third Symphony without a score. If his beat was occasionally erratic, his excitement was palpable and the orchestra was responsive, (as it tends to be after a first half with an outstanding soloist). He elicited a wide range of moods and colors, especially in the outer movements, yet never lost his sense of pacing or artistic balance; the details never overshadowed the whole.

Pires and Blomstedt were both notable in their ability to reconcile competing qualities, she in her wedding of technical mastery and unfailing lyricism, and he in his perfect poise between reactive excitement and careful pacing. This kind of control is the fruit of decades upon decades of experience, and it was a delight to hear this offering from two artists who have each been among the very best at their craft for the better part of the past hundred years.

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Archived in these categories: Classical Era, Orchestral, Piano, Romantic Era.
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