Piano Protagonists – a triumph for Orion Weiss

Pianist Orion Weiss assembled this program around a theme – the composer responding to a specific source of inspiration with a virtuoso composition. It’s an interesting idea, and it yielded an album that virtually spans the Romantic Period.

The earliest work is Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” by Frederic Chopin. And the inspiration was Mozart’s music. Nikolai Rimmsky-Korakov’s Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor was composed in homage to Franz Liszt, who had recently died.

And Eric Wolfgang Korngold’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in C-sharp minor was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein. This virtuoso pianist had lost the use of his right arm in the First World War. He was determined to rebuild his career by commissioning the best composers in Europe to compose music for him. Korngold’s was the first such commission.

I really enjoyed Orion Weiss’ thoughtful performances. While each work is full of technical challenges (and fireworks), they’re never the point with Weiss. His playing brings out the underlying thematic organization of each work. And he adapts his technique to suit the piece.

The Chopin variations retain a certain Mozartian elegance and the feathery keystrokes that Chopin was known for. In the Rimsky-Korsakov work, I heard joy and exuberance — just what I imagine Franz Liszt feeling as he performed.

In the Korngold concerto, I heard the struggle inherent in the music. This is a piece filled with big gestures — gestures that Wittgenstein overcame with the sheer force of will (and incredible left-hand technique).

The Orchestra Now directed by Leon Botstein makes excellent performance partners for Weiss. While the names on the album are famous, these works aren’t. This is a great opportunity to hear some finely crafted and inspired music and music-making.

Piano Protagonists: Music for Piano and Orchestra
Orion Weiss, piano
The Orchestra Now; Leon Botstein, conductor
Bridge Records 9547

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