Concert review: Beethoven's Fourth stands out at PSO concert

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You can stick one of his symphonies between two other pieces, but nobody puts Beethoven in a corner.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 was the second of three works that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Manfred Honeck, performed to a packed Heinz Hall on Friday night. But tucked in the middle as it was, the symphony was the highlight of the concert, which also featured Stokowski's orchestration of Bach's Toccata and Fugue and Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 performed by French pianist Helene Grimaud.

During the symphony's first movement, Mr. Honeck took his time with the dark introduction, although that set up expectations for drama that did not quite materialize. The opening movement's syncopation was understated, tamping down on accents that normally give it its rhythmic integrity.

After this throat-clearing, the orchestra settled in for a gorgeous second movement. It was dry enough to keep the pulsating rhythms intact without sacrificing lyricism, and Michael Rusinek delivered a sweet clarinet solo supported by gentle strings.

It was the final movement, however, that truly showcased the orchestra. Mr. Honeck drew out precision from the fast tempo that made for a heart-racing performance. The woodwinds deftly executed the quick solo passages.

Ms. Grimaud's performance of the Brahms rounded out the concert. The hefty concerto, which the composer conceived as a symphony and a piano sonata before settling on the final format, still exhibits a symphonic character. During the first movement, the pianist was competing with the orchestra for volume, and in doing so compromised clarity and sound. Still, her high notes and pure solos spoke well.

She began to hit her stride in the second movement, during which she achieved jazzy, almost celestial playing. And the third movement sounded the most confident, with a more balanced sound between her and the orchestra. Here her playing was big and energetic but not muddy in the low notes, as it had been in the opening movement.

The concert began with another "keyboard" work -- Stokowski's transcription of Bach's Toccata and Fugue. This orchestration of the familiar organ piece was included in the Disney movie "Fantasia." It was a dramatic interpretation, aided by a couple of beats on the tam-tam, although it became somewhat untethered and inarticulate at the beginning of the fugue.

The concert repeats at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Elizabeth Bloom: or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.

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