Music Review: Grieg’s Piano concerto with Stephan Harsono

Being a fan of the Princess Christina concourse and its participants, I gladly travelled to The Hague for a concert. It was a concert by finalist Stephan Harsono playing the piano, Antonio Méndez conductor and the Residentie Orchestra.

Before the concert started, the audience was told it was part of a special Friday evening concert. During the Friday evening concert, Antonio Méndez would again conduct and the Residentie Orchestra perform, but soloist would be Arthur Jussen.

He’s one of the talented Jussen brothers. Friday 20th of February, he would play Brahms’ Tragic Overture, Grieg’s Piano Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony nr 4. Three pieces written by the major composers of the Romantic era. Apparently, all three composers actually met and shared a lunch together in Leipzig.

It’s indeed difficult to imagine Tchaikovsky, Grieg, and Brahms once sitting around a small table there, enjoying a lunch. Or perhaps: eat lunch – for if two of the guests detest each other wholeheartedly, the food may be a joy – the atmosphere may at best be diplomatic.

But this lunch concert would only be a performance of the well-known piano concerto. Grieg wrote it when he was twenty-four or twenty-five. So slightly older than mr Harsono. As for the Residentie Orchestra, whose members were larking about on the stage before the concert started: their conductor was mr Antonio Méndez.

I must admit: during previous concerts the copper and percussion family of the orchestra could sound too loud, be too overwhelmingly present, and sound rather shrill. This was not the case this time. There was a perfect balance; there was warmth, depth, emotion. So it was a pleasure to hear them perform with this conductor.

This was not altogether the case with the piano performance. The first few moments call for boldness, confidence and also contrast. It’s one of the main Romantic pieces and in A minor. The whole concerto oozes contrasts, heights, deep lows, a tremendous scale of emotions.

Though mr Harsono’s play seemed to improve slightly after the Allegro, there was no flourish, no striking opening impact, no evocation of protest, despair, anger and such darker sides. The calmer parts were played kindly and nicely.

The overall impression of the piano performance was therefore, not convincing nor impressive. Which is surprising, for though mr Harsono is quite young, he was deemed talented enough to win this Princess Christina Prize of being allowed to give a performance with a professional orchestra in a large hall.

There were a few missed keys, which can be easily forgiven in a taxing and challenging piano concert. But the whole performance came across as well-studied in affected ado with hands and arm gestures, but quite lacking in emotions, or contrasting drama.

I overheard two other members in the audience recap the performance as perhaps technically okay, but practically devoid of “heart”. And of course, there is nothing more murderous for a romantic piece of music, than being played without a “feeling heart” or a lack in passion. No pretty and affected hand twirls will ever cover this up. Especially not, in such a highly familiar, well-known, and well-loved piece of music.

Click here for a YouTube video of mr Harsono during his winning performance at the finalist Princess Christina Concours.
Click here for a YouTube impression of mr Jussen playing part of the Grieg piano concerto. 

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