June 10, 2002

Unsuk Chin's successful Piano Concerto and a disappointing Tchaikovsky 5


Unsuk Chin
Piano concerto (1996/97)

Peter Ilyich Tschaikovsky
Fifth Symphony


Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Jesus Lopez Cobos - conductor
Ursula Oppens - piano

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Unsuk Chin's successful Piano Concerto and a disappointing Tchaikovsky 5

by Nancy Chapple / Photo: Christian Steiner (Ursula Oppens)

Unsuk Chin

What motivated Berlin's Deutsches Symphonie Orchester to program Unsuk Chin's piano concerto (1996/97) with Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony? Ursula Oppens' performance of the concerto provided the unmitigated joy of discovery, mesmerising listeners with a world of new colors. In contrast, the orchestra's performance of the Tchaikovsky under Jesus Lopez Cobos, guest conductor, was sorely uneven, most particularly rhythmically.

Several works of the orchestra's 2001-2 composer-in-residence have been performed in Berlin this year. Ms. Oppens practically plunged into the piano concerto, playing throughout with fervor and contagious excitement. The four-movement work starts with high single notes in xylophone and marimba accompanying energetic, complex runs in the solo piano. The strings extend the sounds begun in the piano. The second movement starts mysteriously, with a slow pulsing beat in the piano consisting of mezzoforte chords revolving around major and minor 2nds. Bells and triangles occasionally mark the steady beat. The long sustained notes in brass and strings change least often, providing a basis for the sound. The third movement consists of more rapid mood changes. The fourth movement was over in an instant. It would have been fascinating to hear the piece again.

Ursula Oppens

The first unsettling notes in the Tchaikovsky symphony came with the first appearance of the "fate" theme, as the clarinets seemed differently tuned than the strings. Again and again, the symphony's disparate elements did not mesh. For instance, in the Allegro con anima 6/8 theme, the instrumental groups felt slightly out of sync as the strings played on the beat and the clarinet and bassoon dotted rhythms against it. When dotted eighths are followed by sixteenth notes, a decision must be made whether to play the dotted notes "tautly" or "gently" - and it seemed here different sections had made different decisions.

The orchestra came more into its own in the second movement: the horn played its famous solo beautifully, and the overall instrumental colors were impressive, notably in the bass. Tchaikovsky's frequent tempo changes were all respected. And yet: the overall elastic metric pulse linking it all together was missing. Even a passage of triplets accompanying eighth notes was not together! The third movement started well: sprightly, lively, lightly flowing - and the rhythm felt more sorted. But again in the fourth movement, the "fate" melody sounded trivialized by its accompaniment - though the string triplets accompanying it were at least together with the melody - and that could be more Tchaikovsky's fault than Lopez Cobos'! The movement's final Presto was played so fast that the passage's thrust was unclear. Though the audience cheered just as they had for Chin (a small booing contingent was quickly drowned out), the concert's second half was disappointing.

(This review originally appeared at www.classicstoday.com)