Tuesday, May 1, 2018

An Evening of Masterworks

Last Saturday the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra presented a concert with a wonderfully appealing programme – Wagner’sLohengrinPrelude, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, and Schubert’s “Great” C major symphony.

I had missed Maestro Constantin Trinks’ last appearance with the orchestra, and I had never encountered Sarah Chang’s artistry in person. Needless to say, I was very much looking forward to this performance.

With the Vorspielto Act I of Lohengrin, I would always remember Serge Koussevitzky’s admonition to the orchestra, “When my stick touches the air, you play”. This is really a perfect description to the ethereal pianissimoentrance by the violins, well executed by the violins. Although the strings of the orchestra lack the sheen of the greatest ensembles, it is nevertheless a performance of great splendor and subtlety. I would have wished for more subtle shadings in the crescendo and decrescendo of the first violins at mm. 13-14. There was also some glowingly beautiful wind playing throughout the brief work. I thought that the descending scale at five measures after rehearsal 3 could have had more richness in sound. Trinks had paced the work very well, and the A major chord at fifteen measure after rehearsal 3 was particularly effectively and beautifully placed.

With the famous entrance by the violin, we knew we were in the presence of a great artist. In the opening solo of the first movement, Chang opted to whisper rather than to shout, and the effective was arresting. I was immediately struck by the great beauty of her tone; her middle and lower registers have a palpably silken quality. In the second movement, I was moved by her eloquence and confiding tone. Her playing in this movement was like that of a musical conversationalist, and there was an appealing naturalness in her playing that one finds only in the greatest artists. Her playing of the third movement was filled with a sense of palpable joy and an effortless virtuosity.

Trinks accompanied the concerto effectively, though for me it was an accompaniment rather than a dialogue between orchestra and soloist. The big tune by the strings in the second movement, normally an almost cathartic moment, lacked a sense of urgency. In this slow movement, a feeling of intimacy in the orchestral playing was also lacking. At the beginning of the third movement, I missed a sense of anticipation, and the feeling of inevitability that leads to the entrance by the solo violin. As a result, the overall impression was a lack of totality in the performance, in spite of the absolutely brilliant playing by Chang.

I was particularly looking forward to the performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major(“The Great”), a work that this orchestra has not often played. The pacing of this symphony of “heavenly length” is particularly crucial, and I liked Trinks’ tempo choice in the first movement, and how he took time to let the music unfold. I liked the sound of the string tone in their playing of the main theme (three measures before letter A), conveying power but not aggressiveness. I do question the accelerandothat Trinks took in the build-up to the Allegro, ma non tropposection of the movement. I feel that it would have been more effective to let the tension build with sound rather than with speed. To my ears, the horn entry at fourteen measures after letter F too loud, thereby taking away the far-away quality of this theme. It must be very difficult for the conductor to gauge the two fffmarking by the composer in two spots of the first movement. Trinks missed the emotional impact in these two climatic moments; surely there could have been more of a sense of outburst in these crucial points without pushing the sound excessively? The tempo transition (piu moto) at twenty-five measures after letter N was very effectively paced. However, I did question the tempo change right before the end of the movement (thirteen measures after letter P). Again, the musical effect would have been greater without speeding up.

The haunting and alluring oboe solo at the beginning of the second movement was beautifully played; however, the staccato notes of the strings far too loud and aggressive, thereby taking away the sense of repose of this music. At twenty measures after letter E, I felt that there should have been more diminuendoas well as more of a sense of direction in the return to the main theme. Yet,the fffclimax at letter I was very effectively placed, creating a wonderful feeling of suspense in the pizzicatostring passage immediately following. The playing of the theme by the celli here had a beautifully elegiac quality that I found very moving. At the end of the second movement, I would prefer that there would be no ritard, because a slackening of tempo took away the tension of the music.

The playing of the third and fourth movements, in terms of both pacing and execution, was outstanding. In the opening of the scherzo, the strings had a buoyancy in sound that immediately conveyed the uplift of the music. Trinks’ tempo choice also brought out the liveliness of this movement. At thirty-seven measures after letter B, Trinks gauged the different gradations of sound masterfully. The wind playing in the Triosection was also particularly fetching. 

The fourth movement was played with great urgency, and a real sense of forward motion. The dance-like theme at letter C, almost prefiguring the Slavonic Dancesof Dvorak, had a naturalness and bounce. At the end of the movement, I had the feeling of having lived through an incredible journey of sound. 

It is courageous for any conductor to programme this difficult work by Schubert. In spite of the beauty of its many themes and the obvious greatness of the music, it is not the kind of crowd-pleasing piece for any conductor wanting to make an impression. I am certainly grateful to Constantin Trinks for bringing us the heavenly and otherworldly beautiful of this great symphonic masterpiece.

April 30, 2018

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