Monday, 4 December 2017

Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony 2017-2018 # 2: Quietly Epic Beethoven

This week I had the chance -- and eagerly seized it -- to hear a KWSO concert after attending a working rehearsal for the performance. My enjoyment of the performance was multiplied by some quantum factor because the rehearsal reminded me, in spades, of the significance of one of the works of music I was going to hear performed the following night.

It matters a great deal, because the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 is one of the most monumental works Beethoven ever composed. It's longer than any of his orchestral works except for the 3rd and 9th symphonies! But (and it is a huge "But"), the music disguises its size and power alike by its reticence in volume and scale of tone -- as shown by the very beginning, four notes tapped quietly out on the timpani at a moderate tempo. The opening orchestral tutti lasts for 4 minutes before the soloist's first entry, practically an eternity by classical concerto standards, yet only rises once (briefly) to the level of forte.

In the rehearsal, guest conductor Pablo Rus Broseta and soloist Jonathan Crow played through the entire first movement, all 25 minutes of it, before beginning to pull it apart to work out the details -- a process which required a further hour of work. That elapsed time alone reminded us forcefully of the sheer size of a piece which can often seem somewhat innocuous until you look this closely at it.

During that rehearsal, I also found that I was frequently reminded, by turns of phrase and by the prominent use of the woodwinds, of the composer's Pastoral Symphony (No. 6) which was in process of being composed at the same time. That symphony is another work which, as Sir Donald Tovey observed, conceals its power behind a relatively quiet and gentle surface.

Given the scale of this concerto, it's not surprising that it occupied the final place on the concert programme, after the intermission. The first half was by no means an also-ran.

Well, some of it, anyway. The KWSO always includes a contemporary work in its main series Signature programmes. Some of these contemporary works have been very rewarding -- but German composer Jörg Widmann's Con brio Concert Overture for Orchestra was not among them. It was the outcome of a commission which requested a work related in some way to Beethoven's seventh and eighth symphonies (presumably to be played on a programme with those two works).

The connection certainly eluded me. In the closing pages there were some brief melodic fragments for the trumpets and horns which sounded as if they might fit into Beethoven's Seventh. Otherwise, the music consisted mainly of the kinds of sound effects which were considered avant-garde in the 1960s when Krszsytof Penderecki used them in such works as his famous St. Luke Passion -- strings played col legno, sighs, rattlings, glissando shrieks, noises far removed from whatever each instrument was designed to do, even some vocalizing from players who were not otherwise aggressing upon their instruments (to quote Anna Russell's serendipitous metaphor). Today, this sort of thing can only be called derivative, passé, tedious -- and lifeless with it.

All of this carefully-organized noise was presumably governed by the rhythm being so assiduously beaten out by the conductor but, if I had closed my eyes, I would never have been able to guess what that rhythm might have been. Compare that to Beethoven, in whose output so many works can be readily recognized by their rhythmic profile alone, and the poverty of invention in this modern work becomes only too apparent.

I will kindly assume that the orchestra played with their usual finesse and aplomb in this very sticky wicket -- and with that, let's move on.

The next work was the polar opposite -- an almost perfectly timed choice, considering that it was performed on the weekend immediately after St. Andrew's Day. This was the Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 ("Scottish") by Felix Mendelssohn. Don't let the opus number fool you! This was actually the last of Mendelssohn's five full-orchestral symphonies to reach completion, and certainly one of the most accomplished.

It's ironic that after years of never hearing this symphony performed live, I've now heard it twice in the space of four months. Believe me, I am not complaining! Here's how I described the work at the previous performance:

"There's no question in my mind that the composer absolutely captured the feeling of Scotland, not so much as a place, but as a state of mind: mysterious, dramatic, lively, pensive and -- in the end -- standing tall and proud as an equal for any member of the family of nations."

There's a terrific amount of energy in this score, and Rus Broseta led the orchestra in a performance that brought it all flying out at us. The sombre slow introduction gave a definite feeling that bigger matters were at hand. The allegro of the first movement rolled along with great momentum, even with the carefully-judged slowing into the second subject. The violins, so often tasked by this composer with high-speed tremolando passages, tore off their parts with great gusto -- so much so that it was a pity they were sometimes drowned out by the winds and brass. For a work like this, where the winds and brass so often play as a full group, a larger string section would be desirable. The other balance issue was the overly-enthusiastic contribution of the timpani in many places. But the surging, swelling waves at the climax of the movement came pouring over us with much better balance and clarity.

In the light-hearted scherzo, the clarinet melody chuckled and bubbled merrily along, to great effect. The more solemn slow movement brought beautiful horn chording. The finale was taken a little too fast for my liking, giving the music so much lift and energy that it began to sound playful rather than warlike (the score directs the tempo to be allegro guerriero which definitely means a "warlike" sound!). The majestic victory march conclusion was paced beautifully, giving the music plenty of zip and go still (it can easily become too solemn and ponderous here). All in all, a lovely performance of one of the finest of Mendelssohn's great inspirations.

And so to the Beethoven. The lengthy opening tutti set up the feeling of a conversation among the instruments which is so much a part of the flavour of this work. The violinist's first entry was paced with a good deal more rubato than is often used, but quickly settled back into the overall tempo of the performance. As the movement went on, that basic tempo got nudged a little bit here and there, but not too much -- soloist and conductor always remembering that this is Beethoven, not one of the late Romantics. Balance between the soloist and orchestra was always impeccable, and the long melodic lines from the violin developed the kind of singing, almost vocal tone which alone makes this concerto such a thing of beauty. Crow wrapped his fingers around the music's technical difficulties with complete assurance, always maintaining that sense of singing ease. His cadenza was a more heavy-weight affair, with much double-stopping, but not overdone, and the gentle re-entry of the orchestra at the end was all one could ask.

So too was the slow movement -- a miracle of quiet musical poise and lyricism in this performance. The theme and variations is of a kind found often in French Baroque music, where the bass and harmony remain constant and almost unchanging while the melody instrument spins out successive versions with more and more subdivided notes to the bar. (In the French tradition, these variations are often labelled as "doubles" because the number of notes per bar doubles in each variation).

Crow reminded me again of the Pastoral Symphony when he launched the finale with the kind of earthy tone and gusto that would fit perfectly into that symphony's scherzo. The orchestra came right along with him, relishing the country-dance inspiration underlying the main theme -- and then revisiting the lyrical tone of earlier movements in the lovely central episode. The quiet wind-down to the ending and the sudden surprising emphatic cadence to close were beautifully executed as well.

If recorded, this would certainly be a performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto to live with and treasure!