Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Nordic Soundscapes

I had been so looking forward to last weekend’s Vancouver Symphony Concert, since it featured two of my favourite orchestral works: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 30 and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82.

Yet I came away after the concert strangely disappointed.

The concert opened with Mexican-Canadian composer Alfredo Santa Ana’s Ocaso, a Spanish word for “dusk”. The work is well written and orchestrated, with a quietly energetic opening and closing, and a more lyrical middle section.  Yet, conductor Anu Tali failed to bring out fully the orchestral colours inherent in the score. This was to be a major complaint for the music making for the entire evening.

An interesting sight in music schools is piano student walking around with the score of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, and its title prominently displayed. But even with today’s high standards of piano playing, there are still relatively few pianists who can truly bring off all the elements of this rich and dense score. For me, the orchestral writing for this concerto is no less amazing than its very demanding piano part.

Let me first say that pianist Alexey Yemtsov gave a note perfect and technically impregnable performance last Saturday evening. However, it was a performance that was devoid of tonal beauty, grandeur and poetry. We recently witnessed the Vancouver recital debut of Charles Richard Hamelin. Mr. Yemtsov’s approach to music making seemed to be the antithesis to that of Hamelin. Things were not helped by probably the dullest piano I had heard for a long time. While the haunting melody in the opening bars should be played simply, there was no shaping of the melodic lines under Yemtsov’s hands, and the result sounded angular. Even the buildup (piu vivo) to the incredible climax at 7 measures after rehearsal number 14 failed to elicit any real excitement. Conductor Tali conducted the score competently, and maintained a good sense of ensemble throughout the performance, but she was merely “accompanying” the concerto, and the orchestra definitely played a secondary role last Saturday. She completely failed to bring out the lushness and richness of the orchestral writing. Emotionally, the two artists may as well have been playing different pieces.

Close to the end of the third movement, at rehearsal number 74 (Vivacissimo), Tali did something quite inexplicable to my ears. At the third of the orchestral fanfares echoing the piano chords, she slowed down the tempo slightly, thereby slackening the tension in the music, and she did the same thing when the fanfares return at 13 measures after 74. Throughout the performance, there was a lot of banging on the keyboard, emphasizing the vertical rather than the horizontal elements of the music. There was no sense of phrasing in the many beautiful melodies throughout the work. This was the kind of “efficient” music making that seems to be so prevalent with today’s young pianists. It was digitally precise, but where was the music?

Ever since Glenn Gould used Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major as the soundtrack for his radio documentary The Idea of North, I have, every time I hear this music, conjured in my mind this imaginary Nordic but so very Canadian landscape. Tali’s reading of this score was musical, but she failed to bring out the epic quality that is (to me) inherent in the music. The wind players of the Vancouver Symphony played the opening of the first movement beautifully, as they always do. But the music does not build, and there was a serious lack of tension in the music making. The second movement was charming and beautiful, but it was again more of the image created by an ordinary photographer, rather than an Ansel Adams.

In the third movement, the rapid string figurations in the opening measures do not lead up to that incredible and inevitable arrival of the big theme by the French horns at letter D. Overall, the young conductor’s reading of the score missed the epic grandeur, the “bigness” (not loudness) of the music. Which was really unfortunate. Towards the end of the movement, when the same melody by the horns is played, the “answers” by the violins and violas (6 before letter P) should, I think, have a weightier, more substantial sound.

So, last Saturday’s performance was an evening of “might have been”. The performances were technically more than adequate, but somehow the artists missed the emotional impact these great works could have elicited.


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