Pianist Sebastian Knauer’s Beethoven concerto lifts the Deutsche State Philharmonic

The Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie under conductor Philippe Entremont played works by Strauss and Brahms Monday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, but pianist Sebastian Knauer took the musical honors with a thrilling performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The program repeats Wednesday at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

In this most Mozartean of Beethoven concertos, Knauer balanced classical elegance with authoritative command. The young German’s exquisite touch and digital dexterity were wedded to a patrician interpretive view. He offered a robust yet nuanced performance that illuminated the subtleties beneath the score’s light-hearted surface.

From the piano’s entrance, Knauer made the first movement riveting with his rhythmically virile approach. He attacked the exciting cadenza with energy and panache and perfectly conveyed the serenity of the Adagio, letting its surging solo line sing forth like wordless lieder.

The Rondo finale was highly charged, Knauer’s crisp articulation always allowing the music to sparkle and uncovering inner figurations and lines often obscured. The whole performance radiated a sense of joy yet demonstrated the most refined artistic sensibilities. Despite some untidy string playing, Entremont offered pliant, supportive accompaniment.

Knauer’s performance of Brahms’ Intermezzo in A Major, as an encore, demonstrated even greater sensitivity. He strongly conveyed the poetic introspection, reverie and romance of the composer’s beautiful keyboard writing.

Based in the Rhineland cities of Mannheim and Ludwigshafen, the Deutsche State Philharmonic, while not a first-rate ensemble, is considerably better than many German provincial orchestras. The brass section is particularly strong, sometimes overwhelming the other instruments. While the corporate violin tone is somewhat thin, the lower strings are impressively mellow and sonorous.

The crucial horn and clarinet solos in Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, which opened the program, were articulated with admirable precision and impressive tonal compass. Despite Entremont’s generally fast tempos, the composer’s witty portrait of a professional prankster was still straight laced, wanting in humor and sparkle.

Brahms’ Symphony No.4 brought the orchestra’s strengths and weaknesses into full view. The performance benefitted from a fuller violin sonority and strong solo contributions by the first chair flute, clarinet and horn players. Oboe solos, however, were reedy and imprecise, and Entremont’s stodgy direction yielded variable results. The symphony failed to catch fire in the first movement, and the conductor’s habit of lingering over phrases sacrificed musical pulse and the broader shape. Balances occasionally went awry with dominant brass engulfing the rest of the ensemble. The score’s two inner movements fared best, with a lyrically spacious Andante and tautly drawn Scherzo. In the concluding passacaglia, Entremont’s deliberate tempo impeded momentum and impact.

The conductor brought greater urgency to the encores — spirited performances of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.1 and the first of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances.

If you go

What: Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie with Philippe Entremont and Sebastian Knauer

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts

Cost: $50-$125

Info: 305-9496722, arshtcenter.org


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