This week's concert at the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony consists of three Russian works by three different composers.
I have to confess to wildly varying reactions to these three pieces. One of them I've never really liked at all. One of them I desperately want to like -- but can't. And one has been near and dear to my heart ever since I was a child.
The opening of the concert was the rarest item of the programme by far: Tchaikovsky's "fantasy-overture" The Tempest, after the famous late Shakespeare play. It was composed in 1873, shortly after his far more famous Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture.
Unlike Romeo and Juliet, this work is much more episodic. The music keeps coming to a dead halt between sections and themes. Although the work is arranged in a cyclical form that lets it represent the major events and characters of the play, the thematic material used is rather thin and doesn't lend itself to the kind of rich development heard in the earlier work. The love theme for Miranda and Ferdinand consists of a four-bar phrase, a repeat rising to a higher ending, and that's all. All the composer could do with this rather weak-kneed melody was to play it again -- louder. The best parts of the score are the opening and closing sea music, brooding and mysterious and full of subtle touches. This sea music also brought the most beautiful playing in the work from the orchestra.
Conductor Edwin Outwater, in his pre-concert remarks, asserted his view that the love theme is memorable and so it is -- but not for its high quality. Despite the care and love he lavished on the performance, he failed to convince me. I'd like to be to say this is a forgotten Tchaikovsky masterpiece. But, alas, there are good solid reasons why Romeo and Juliet has soared to immense worldwide popularity while The Tempest has been largely forgotten.
Next work on the programme was Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, composed when Prokofiev was in his twenties. It's a fiery, often dissonant work, and it predates the development of his ability to compose extended diatonic melodies (a gift which surfaced later in his life). The key to the style lies in the composer's oft-quoted observation that the piano is a percussion instrument and ought to be played percussively. I've heard the concerto played several times, and have never really been able to come to grips with the music -- or even wished to do so. Indeed, I'm left with the impression that the music consists of half an hour of short snippets succeeded by other and unrelated short snippets.
More's the pity, then, because the performance was clearly of high quality, tautly conceived and neatly executed by all concerned. The rapid passagework in the piano part was played by soloist Alon Goldstein with fire and precision, and without beating the piano within an inch of its life. I think if you are going to play this work, you had much better give it your "next to damnedest," saving the all-out assault for the high-speed final coda. This both Goldstein and Outwater certainly did.
The largest work on the concert was Rimsky-Korsakov's "symphonic suite" Scheherazade, Op. 35. This four-movement work is always cited as one of the three great masterpieces for the orchestra composed by Rimsky-Korsakov before turning to opera, and with good reason. Familiar as this music is to so many, it still requires a live performance and the resulting higher focus of ear and eye to appreciate the skill and subtlety with which this score was written.
Unlike many composers of programmatic music, Rimsky-Korsakov didn't write to a detailed outline, rather composing four movements with extensive use of inter-related themes. He did preface the score with a short note about the Sultan Schariar, who -- convinced of the faithlessness of all women -- puts each of his wives to death after the wedding night. But then comes the wily Scheherazade, who starts telling him a captivating story, but refuses to finish it until the next night. After 1001 nights, and bearing him three sons, she persuades him of her fidelity and he rescinds his bloody decree. This, of course, is the background story of the "1001 Arabian Nights" collection of tales.
Beyond that point, though, Rimsky-Korsakov declined to offer any specific programmatic outline, giving only the titles of the four movements. "My aim," he said, "was to direct the hearer's fancy but slightly on the path my own has travelled." Only in the final movement did he include an overtly programmatic event, but even that serves an important musical function within the structure of the entire work.
Two main themes are heard right at the outset: the thunderous fanfare of the bloody Sultan, and the coaxing violin solo of the wily Scheherazade. These two themes, and the solo violin in particular, are woven through much of the music. The orchestra created an appropriately dark and dangerous sound in the fanfare, and soloist Benedicte Lauziere (the concertmaster) played the Scheherazade theme sweetly and seductively.
And then we were launched into The Sea and Sinbad's Ship. The main theme of this first movement (derived from the Sultan's theme) was carefully graduated by Outwater so that each subsequent rise in key -- there are many -- came out slightly louder than its predecessor. Only on the third and final complete reiteration of the swelling sea melody did the orchestra arrive at a full fortissimo.
The sinuous voice of Scheherazade and a gentle bassoon solo appropriately launched The Tale of Prince Kalendar. This movement in particular highlighted the fine quality of the wind sections as each in turn got a chance to shine.
The third movement, The Young Prince and the Princess was noteworthy for Outwater's gentle rubato. This allowed for a quality of langour without distorting the shape of the long, lyrical arch of melody. The gentle sounds of the chiming percussion highlighted the quiet dance-like middle theme.
The fierce playing of the Sultan's theme opening the final movement was almost the only spot where I felt Outwater overplayed his hand. But if you're going to be fierce, it's just as well that the succeeding violin solo share that quality. Lauziere's double-stopped notes sacrificed nothing of tone quality, but gave the impression of being wrenched out of the strings -- very gripping.
The Festival of Baghdad is the first really rapid music in the work, and many conductors fall into the trap of playing it too quickly. It's very important that we hear the distinct notes of the ostinato rhythmic figures which continue obsessively throughout the piece. Outwater here struck the ideal speed, fast enough to capture the hectic quality desired, slow enough to keep the notes audible. This music also includes some of the densest textures. Throughout the Festival, the orchestral balance was near-perfect. The change back to the sea music was powerful indeed, the darker brass well to the fore, and the percussion contributed an apocalyptic stroke on the tam-tam to highlight the hugest climax of all when the ship is wrecked against a rock surmounted by a bronze warrior.
Thereafter, the gentle wind-down as Scheherazade finished her final tale was beautifully paced and scaled. At the very end, Lauziere's high harmonics maintained the sweetest tone right to the final note. All in all, a very fine performance of one of my favourite pieces. I wish I could go back and hear it again tonight, but I have something else on my plate!