Saturday night’s BPO program – to be repeated this afternoon – is entitled “Hungarian Soul” and featured pianist Cecile Licad, who was showcased in performances of two works for piano and orchestra by Franz Liszt.
The composer’s first piano concerto is one of those pieces demanding a forceful pianist, one whose power allows the instrument to soar over the orchestra when those forces are unleashed. This isn’t to say that moments of poetry aren’t present, because they definitely are.
Licad was fine in those more lyrical sections but, while she has loads of technique – as witnessed in the work’s second movement, where the piano makes a truly lovely entrance in advance of the orchestra – the band frequently overpowered her.
Things were much better in Liszt’s “Totentanz”, a fearsome instrumental journey inspired by the first section of the “Dies Irae,” a sequence in the Catholic Requiem Mass. Here the composer allotted even more solo space to the piano than he did in the concerto and, as a result, it afforded Licad a better shot at displaying her talents. She was truly impressive in this instance, balancing the elements of brutality and delicacy that Liszt set against each other.
The rest of the program also had a keyboard tinge to it but that was more a case where the piano was present at the conception of works by Ernst von Dohnanyi and Johannes Brahms but later appeared in orchestral arrangements. “Ruralia Hungarica” began as a work for solo piano while Brahms’ “Hungarian Dances” was originally created for piano four-hands.
“Ruralia Hungarica,” which began the evening’s program, was a lovely piece of music that began with the beauty of the low strings and winds being drawn out before gradually picking up steam. Dance rhythms prevailed and you could really hear how the original piano parts were translated into string passages, especially in the later movements.
The “Hungarian Nocturne” by Miklos Rozsa is a wonderful albeit workmanlike piece with cinematic flair. This isn’t all that surprising since Rozsa, like Bernard Herrmann and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, wrote a ton of film scores. In his case, Academy Award-winning soundtracks for “Spellbound” (1945), “Double Life” (1947), and “Ben Hur” (1959) paid the bills while works like his Violin Concerto – which he wrote for Jascha Heifetz – and other works drawing upon Hungarian folk music for inspiration brought him recognition in the concert hall.
The BPO closed out the evening with three of Brahms’ “Hungarian Dances.” The first one was actually arranged by Brahms while the fourth and fifth in the cycle were settings by Paul Juon and Martin Schmeling, respectively.
It’s the fifth “Hungarian Dance” that’s most familiar with modern audiences. Over time it has been used to comic effect in a number of cinematic forays, including Charlie Chaplin’s movie, “The Great Dictator,” cartoons by Disney and even a couple of “Simpsons” episodes.