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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 50.0° F  Overcast
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Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's season concludes with glorious Schubert
Pianist Goodyear played the Hummel with dazzling brilliance and panache.
Pianist Goodyear played the Hummel with dazzling brilliance and panache.

Friday night in Overture Center's Capitol Theater, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra closed its season with an unusually fine concert.

To begin, a novelty. Six string players from the orchestra joined in the Sextet that is the mini-overture to Richard Strauss's late opera, Capriccio. While its textures look back to Brahms and ahead to his own post-World War II string fantasy, "Metamorphosen," the piece is also saturated with the lyricism to come in the opera itself. A lush, lovely miniature, handsomely played.

The guest soloist was young American pianist Stewart Goodyear. For his vehicle, he made the refreshing choice of one of the six Piano Concertos by the now-neglected Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837). A student of Mozart and rival to Beethoven, Hummel was one of the leading pianists of his time. He was a prolific composer, but he wrote best for his personal instrument. This concerto, in A minor, Op. 85, is very much in Mozartean format, if with touches of Beethoven-like weight, but it also points the way firmly into early Romanticism.

Goodyear played with dazzling brilliance and panache, evidently trying to point up anticipations of Chopin. That aim worked sometimes in the fast outer movements, but succeeded less in the central Larghetto, where constant rapid passagework relentlessly reasserted the flashy character of a post-Classical showpiece. As if to make up for it, Goodyear played Chopin's famous "Polonaise militare" as an encore, but in a thunderous, unsubtle performance that was counterproductive.

Music director Andrew Sewell, so thoroughly successful in Haydn's symphonies, has chosen to move into Schubert's, plunging fearlessly this time into the composer's Ninth, called the "Great C major" Symphony (distinguishing it from the "Little C major," No. 6). Composed in 1826, barely two years before Schubert's appallingly premature death at age 31, it was meant to be a work of grandly ambitious monumentality. The result is now recognized as one of the greatest masterpieces in the symphonic form.

Sewell had carefully taken the measure of this work. In the grand opening movement, his sensitivity to varying tempos to fit different musical episodes was very handsomely conveyed. The soulful Andante, even more than the other movements, allowed Sewell to pay homage to Schubert's mastery of the song form and his entrancing lyricism. The third movement, based on Austrian dance idioms, had wonderful Viennese lilt, while the finale was held together superbly by rhythmic propulsiveness.

Sewell had the advantage, moreover, of an ensemble in which the winds were not overbalanced by the strings, not only pointing up the great importance of the wind parts but restoring equality to the constant dialogues between them and the strings. (And I hope someday Sewell will complete his ensemble balances by putting the second violins over on the right, where they belong.)

This was, in sum, an absolutely glorious performance, reminding us of why the score's discoverer, Robert Schumann, famously described it as a "symphony of heavenly lengths."

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