by Joe Banno
Regular visitors to National Philharmonic concerts who have heard Piotr Gajewski conduct Beethoven in the past likely knew what to expect when he led the orchestra in the composer’s Seventh Symphony on Saturday at Strathmore Hall. As was typical of Gajewski’s approach to Beethoven, his reading borrowed from period-instrument practice, with fleet tempos, lithe phrasing, transparent textures and reduced orchestra size (from what I could see from my seat, around 45 players). Yet while the strings employed less-than-maximum vibrato and the brasses were forwardly balanced, there was no attempt to disguise the warmth and smooth finish in the sound their modern instruments produced.
Above all, both here and in a taut reading of Beethoven’s “Coriolan” Overture, Gajewski was objective to a fault. Energy was certainly not absent. But the kind of gutsy, edge-of-the-seat excitement that such lean, historically informed performances often generate was missing, and attention to musical architecture took precedence over the kind of personal shaping of the score that can make a performance unforgettable.
But it was hard to quibble when the Philharmonic consistently played far above its “second-tier orchestra” status. The phrasing was also graceful and disciplined in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, where veteran pianist Seymour Lipkin gave a sparkling, classically poised rendition of the solo part. Lipkin is not a young man — he was born in 1927 — but inaccuracies in his fingerwork were few, and the plain-spoken eloquence and liquid tone he brought to the piece were very special indeed.