JWR Articles: Radio Broadcast - CBC Symphony Hall (Conductor: Sergiu Comissiona) - March 25, 2002
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CBC Symphony Hall

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Pedantic readings disappoint

Today’s broadcast was frustrating: a wonderful program, well recorded, played with great care and skill by the members of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, but thwarted at every turn by musical leadership that failed to let the music break the bonds of bar lines.

I remember standing in the nearly0completed Orpheum Theatre with my mentor (and VSO music director at the time), Kazuyoshi Akiyama, and sharing his excitement for its potential for both players and supporters of one of Canada’s finest ensembles. Hearing them for the first time on radio proved again the wisdom of that enterprise!

Conductor emeritus, Sergiu Comissiona, began the concert with the ever-popular Finlandia tone poem. Once the brass settled in, the opening measures held promise even as the tympani threatened to obliterate their lines. The strings shone from the start and were well-balanced with the woodwinds who would be the most consistent section of the performance.

The transition from the introduction was fine, but Sibelius’ all-too-rare declaration of joy (complete with triangle and cymbals) remained lurking just beneath the surface. The clarinets were particularly present in the chorale; the regording engineer allowed us to appreciate the inner voices more clearly than would have been possible in the hall.

Comissiona, too, seemed interested in the details—the syncopation always coming through clearly, the dynamics keenly observed; yet, for all the beauty of sound, the work came across as strangely lifeless and perhaps too “well-known.”

Programming “chestnuts” is a two-way street: both the performers and the audience are well-versed in the notes, but, because of that, expectations often run high—how can I (the performer) offer new insights or originality to such a familiar work? Soloist and conductor answered that with a self-indulgent version that lacked direction, drama and understanding.

The tempi were consistently laboured. The opening “Allegro molto moderato” began with flare, but from Janina Fialkowska’s second entry, her initially interesting thoughtful, delicate approach never made its point and, like the astonishingly introspective “Adagio,” suffered from too much “ebb and ebb” rather than ebb and flow. The Finale got off to an uncertain start, then seemed more panic- than passion-driven—particularly the passagework. The continual “hesitato” by both interpreters at the top of nearly every phrase produced the unsettlingly effect of observing the concerto in slow motion. Rather than excitement, I experienced relief when the first movement’s cadenza arrived.

The recording of the piano came across as slightly covered; the instrument’s top register sounded tinny. Ironically, the soloist’s pianism is of such a high level that it further added to my disappointment: a stage full of these marvellously skilled musicians (the orchestra was solid throughout and the winds were miracles of breath control) shackled with such a laborious approach.

The D Major Symphony has been a part of my musical life since first encountering its mystery and warmth as a clarinetist with the Ottawa Youth Orchestra. I came to admire Sibelius’ ability to patiently bring us to his point of view and learned the difficulty of large ensembles bringing long lines to concincing life. As a conducting student at Carnegie Mellon University, I observed Lorin Maazel draw sounds from the CMU Philharmonic that none of us had realized were in this score that we “knew.” He spent five minutes on the first bar, wordlessly establishing the direction and impressing on all the importance (like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) of “playing” the silent rest that begins the work. Eugene Ormandy’s recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra remains the one to beat.

And beat is what we had. So many times the music came across ↓ rather than →. There were two reasons: tempi always a nickel short of pulse (except for the “Vivacissimo,” which was breathless but in the cracks of ensemble) and phrasing that continuously ignored the big picture, resulting in a total absence of inevitability or spontaneity.

The “Allegretto” showed off the strings to advantage but its big climax failed to jell. Following that (and many times throughout the other movements) the relentless syncopations (like Brahms’ Second Symphony) remained too long in the foreground covering much of the thematic development and interplay. (Recording note: just prior to the recapitulation, there appeared to be “bubble” on the air tape.)

The low strings produced a superb pizzicato to open the “Andante,” however its brooding suspense was limited once more by a pace that forced the winds to hang on for dear life rather than fully shape and colour their offerings. The violins must also have wished their bows were five inches longer!

The transition to the Finale came off without incident then, like Finlandia, was mired with the ostinatos and the many repetitive lines, which, rather than build relentlessly, came across as dull, technical exercises. Such was this effect that when the mode finally switches so gloriously to the major, the magic failed to materialize. Similarly, the succeeding sections, striving to lead us convincingly to the full-cry theme became annoying.

In short, the symphony was presented like an autopsy to a medical class: all the parts were there, but the patient had long ago expired. JWR

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Conductor - Sergiu Comissiona
Repertoire:
Finlandia - Jean Sibelius
Piano Concerto in A Minor - Edvard Grieg
Symphony No. 2 in D Major - Jean Sibelius
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