For some reason, perhaps because of the larger orchestral scale required for the major display concertos, soloists do not generally shine as brightly when playing with a small ensemble as when they have to take on the full orchestral machinery.
Jorge Bolet was an exception when he played with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra before a meager audience in Embassy Theater on Friday night. He played a big piano concerto--Chopin's No. 1 in E minor--which requires only a small orchestra, and he played it in an astonishingly intimate manner. It brought back memories of Josef Hoffmann's celebrated miniaturized treatment of the work, and the comparison of Bolet with the fabulous Hoffmann is not too far fetched.
Bolet's reputation in large part is based on his exhaustive and effortless virtuoso technique. The faultless fingers and the breathless facility were present as usual, but the concept was scaled down to about quarter size. The passage work was superhumanly smooth, and the limpid tone and melting phrasing made for nearly ideal Chopin (and on a Baldwin piano). One did not remember this particular kind of restraint in Bolet, and it made him a larger figure than ever among contemporary pianists.
Kent Nagano officiated as guest conductor. He enforces admirable discipline from his players; the product is lively, clean and incisive. His musicianship is assured and tasteful, and sometimes communicative. It might pay him to revise his baton-less conducting style, and to dispense with so many fluttery wrist movements and so much mane tossing.