Lawrence Toppman

Pianist Lukas Vondracek plays Brahms’ Second with a mighty fervor

Pianist Lukas Vondracek plays Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto Saturday with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.
Pianist Lukas Vondracek plays Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto Saturday with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.

Last season, Lukas Vondracek wrung high drama out of Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. At the time, I wrote, “The mood of coiled-spring intensity never changed. Now I’d like to hear him play something where it did.”

The Czech pianist gave us Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 Friday at Belk Theater, and this performance never let up either. Vondracek doesn’t seek the lightness, serenity or humor some pianists find here. He sees Brahms as a titan struggling to express himself and plays accordingly. But his playing had a kind of rapture in the smaller moments and a majesty in the big ones.

The concert that ended with weight began with lightness. Christopher Warren-Green opened jauntily with the overture to “The Impresario,” the only Mozart opera where the overture contains the best music. Richard Strauss’ suite for Moliere’s play “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” followed. These nine movements for a reduced orchestra can sound monochromatic in a big hall, where details don’t come through, and that happened at times.

Then Vondracek took over. Jaws working, sweat beading on his face, he carved this monumental concerto out of the keyboard like a sculptor hewing a figure from a block of stone. Quiet moments were calms before storms. Loud ones came down like blows from Thor’s hammer.

Only in the third movement, abetted by Alan Black’s warm and dignified playing in the famous cello solo, did he find a kind of uneasy serenity. The rest of the time, he seemed like a mountaineer climbing a steep peak, step by determined step. Warren-Green and the orchestra gave him the appropriate support, with measured tempos but equally intense playing.

Vondracek came back for an unidentified encore that reminded the audience the piano is indeed a percussive instrument. (It was the final movement of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, if I’m guessing right.) That he still had such volcanic energy made the audience gasp. He’ll play Shostakovich’s bravura First Piano Concerto here next season, so the fireworks aren’t over yet.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

The CSO plays Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 (Lukas Vondracek, soloist), the overture to Mozart’s “The Impresario” and Richard Strauss’ “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” again at 8 p.m. Saturday in Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St. Tickets are $19-$89. Details: 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org.

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