Liszt in Ottawa

2011-02-17 / Ottawa Citizen / Richard Todd

National Arts Centre Orchestra

With conductor Ludovic Morlot and pianist Angela Hewitt

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

One of the best ways to attract a large audience in Ottawa is to have Angela Hewitt on your program. This Ottawa native is widely regarded as one of the great pianists of our time, particularly in the music of J. S. Bach.

As people who have followed her career know, she’s a good Liszt performer as well, which attests to her range and versatility. Wednesday evening she played Liszt’s Concerto no. 1 in E-flat, a dazzling showpiece with a little more substance than most scores that dazzle.

Her performance sparkled when it should and snarled with demonic rage when that’s what was called for. Her brilliant playing was complemented by the tight, focused sound of the orchestra.

Earlier, the concert began with Berlioz’s Les francs-juges, the overture to the opera of the same name that the composer withdrew before it could be performed. It concerned an extra-judicial body that operated in Westphalia in the Middle Ages, rather like the Gestapo and the Ku Klux Klan of more recent memory. Most of the opera is lost to us now, but this vestige of it is sometimes programmed as a curtain raiser in modern orchestral concerts.

Conductor Ludovic Morlot led a blazing account of the score. The orchestral playing was alert and high powered due in part to the dozen extra string players that provided the extra heft that the Berlioz sound requires.

Another work that needs a full sound is Franck’s Symphony in D minor. It isn’t heard these days as often as it was a generation or two ago. It’s an intriguing work, not entirely symphonic in the manner of Beethoven or Brahms, but powerful in its sensuous, Gallic way. Many listeners hear intimations of religious ecstasy in it, a common reaction to Franck’s music.

Conductor Morlot led a well-considered, well-proportioned and powerful rendition of the score, supported once again by the excellent playing and extra mass of the orchestra. One of the most admirable elements of the performance was the layering of textures between the sections, the right instrument or group of instruments coming to the fore at exactly the right moment, if only for a few wonderful beats. It takes a performance of this quality to remind us what a masterpiece this symphony really is.