Lucerne’s Sibelius mini festival continued the day after Rakastava (cross-reference below) with a completely Scandinavian program (save and except for the pianist’s birthday-mood encore) of Grieg and Finland’s most famous musical son.
Conducted by Neeme Järvi, the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra made a valiant attempt at bringing three favourites and one undeservedly less-played composition to life, but only managed to scratch the surface of the great art that lay beneath the necessarily incomplete representation that mere dots on pages describe.
The beloved Peer Gynt Suite set the table for the remaining items on the evening’s generous menu.
Nicely played and coloured, Järvi was content to beat time (here with no baton; employing one for the remainder of the program produced no discernible difference). The principal strings—notably the concertmaster who ought to receive an assistant conductor’s bonus—kept much of the ensemble together, utilizing overt body language and subtle eye-contact to help their able colleagues when the affable maestro’s hands slipped lower than the music stand or when he merely quit beating and nodded his considerable frame in time. Not one climactic cadence—infuriatingly the plagal conclusion of the symphony’s first movement—was shaped or weighted to conclude all that preceded rather than just end it.
In the concerto—so similar to the prior night’s Beethoven, (cross-reference below) the piano/orchestra synchronized attack percentage barely rose above 25 (sadly, still an improvement over Grimaud/Ashkenazy).
Lars Vogt gave a convincing account of the solo part, but not even his up-stretched arms at key moments could glue the art together. And why the strings were reduced even as the trombones joined the fray will forever remain a mystery.
The Festival’s Eros-theme-fitting work, Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande, was notable for some beautifully rendered English horn interventions and a pianissimo that would have been spellbinding if some much-needed inner tension had found its way into the mix. Perfectly at home above a mezzo-forte, the clarinets ran out of vital diaphragm support when required to offer their musical comments sotto voce.
The C Major Symphony could be a real crowd pleaser if Järvi would get to work and shape the phrases and prepare then highlight the harmonic changes rather than passively watch them meander by virtually unnoticed.
Once the “Moderato” shifted to “Allegro” the unwanted feeling of uneasiness (with ensemble) dissipated. With the beginning of the extended triplets, the venerable conductor jumped about happily, causing his charges to likewise relax and deliver some of the finest music-making of the concert.
But before you could say “inherent structure,” the low brass awoke from their slumber. Then everything just stopped, yielding no sense of long-journey arrival.
Choosing Sibelius’ Waltz Triste as the encore was more in keeping with what was just missed than, apparently, what had been enthusiastically enjoyed. JWR
Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande
EMI CDM 7 63400 2
Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
This Abbey Road studio recording is notable for its lack of detail. Despite Sibelius’ carefully marked score, Beecham only renders the dynamics he likes and virtually ignores the expressive tenuto indications. He also seems incapable of keeping the strings together—“At the Castle Gate” is very untidy. The RPO’s English horn doesn’t have a good outing. The overly soft reed is unable to deliver a properly slurred octave and the tone most certainly lacks centre. Insult to injury is the patently ungraceful rendering of the frequent grace notes (“Mélisande”—uncomfortably making them sound as if on the beat instead of decorating it).
Omitting “At the seashore” is hardly faithful to the composer, much less the listener. “A spring in the park” threatens to fall to pieces in the climactic moments. On the plus side, the “Entr’acte” has engaging froth, fun and an ending where the famous harmonics and broad release are almost “ensemble.”
“The Death of Mélisande” never finds its mournful groove; failing to observe the indicated amount of silent rests in the dying measures further weakens the result. JWR
Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Op. 52
26' 10", 1992
Lorin Maazel, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
From the superb ear of recording engineer Gordon Parry, aided and abetted by the marvellous acoustics of the long-lamented Sofiensaal, comes this magnificently captured performance (part of the complete set spanning 1963-68; James Brown did the honours for Symphony No. 1) conducted with vigour, enthusiasm and bright tempi by Lorin Maazel (Vladimir Ashkenazy’s 1983 Philharmonia Orchestra disc clocks in at a comparatively stodgy 29’ 47”).
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra shines gloriously: the taut, lean strings devour the long lines and busy passagework, always employing ample flesh to add meat to the frequent beds of pizzicato; the fluffy flutes, thin-cane oboes, dank English horn, oily clarinets and woody bassoons offer clearly distinctive solo hues and a compelling blend; the ever-bold brass take no prisoners while the tympani add sturdy power or moody menace as required. All combine to bring the final climax to an astonishingly brilliant finish.
Maazel is certainly enjoying the ride but can’t manage to keep his talented charges constantly in sync. That works to advantage in the “Allegro moderato,” adding an extra edge of excitement in the busy moments. However, once the celli take stage in the harmonically intriguing middle movement, the lack of togetherness detracts from the composer’s skillful juxtaposition of legato melodies and jagged accompaniment. No matter: your speakers will savour every moment. JWR