This week’s Symphony Hall broadcast provided a splendid “Horn a Plenty,” via the Winnipeg Symphony and guest artist James Sommerville, Canadian French horn virtuoso extraordinaire. We feasted on two works featuring the most unpredictable member of the brass family, where the tiniest miscalculation of embouchure or air pressure can produce “bloops” that won't go unnoticed.
In both the Mozart and Strauss concerti, which share the same Masonic key of E-flat Major, Sommerville ably demonstrated why he is currently in the first chair of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His playing goes far beyond getting through the notes with an extraordinarily high hit/miss ratio; he also offers a wide range of tone, effortless technique and—most importantly—a sense of phrasing that raises the level from instrumental admiration to a truly musical experience.
WSO music director Andrey Boreyko offered sympathetic support but failed to find the magic of perfect ensemble with his guest. That left the readings good rather than great. The musicians were generally clear and articulate, although they never did match Sommerville’s dotted rhythms in the first movement of the Strauss. I would encourage the recording engineer to give the winds more presence, especially when they comprise just oboes and horns to elevate the overall balance into the memorable category.
Mozart’s D Major, "Paris" Symphony was offered between the solo works. It proved to be a lively tonic. Boreyko chose to dash through rather than savour this three-movement wonder which has many musical jewels lurking just below the notes. Still, he made an excellent case for his point of view in the opening “Allegro assai,” where my only quibble was the chopping up of the piano, legato line that so wondrously foils the full-blown root tonality’s announcement. A complete agreement between the winds and strings as to length in their staccati for the closing measures would add sparkle and take us one step closer to the next plane of understanding.
Having a master craftsman in the wings must have been too much pressure for the resident French horns as they bobbled not a few entries throughout the program, but insult was added to injury when their miscounting ruined the final part of the sublime “Andante.” Much has been made of the alternate version, whose flaws, according to its “patron” Le Gros, after attending the première, were “that it modulates too much and that it is too long,” whereas Mozart believed the real reason he was forced to pen an alternate movement was that “the audience forgot to applaud it as noisily and persistently as they did the other movements.” Ugh, composition by poll!
The Finale, despite its Allegro marking was taken at such a clip that the further adjective panicoso would best describe the result. There was excitement in the air but more suitable for the racetrack than the concert hall.
Boreyko’s affinity for Stravinsky was evident from the first measures of the “Sinfonia”; this performance showed both his musicality and the orchestra’s first-desk players to excellent advantage. Tempi were bang-on and the treacherous transitions navigated with authority. The principal oboe deserves special notice for delivering this mini-concerto with such style and surety of tone; the horns redeemed themselves admirably in the “Gavotta’s” variations. The saucy trombone was just right; the solo contrabass nearly note-perfect. The strings, winds and solo quintet were well-balanced both on the stage and through the speakers.
Intellectually satisfied and musically filled, I looked forward to a feast of a different kind, just hours away, where fine music would certainly be own my list of what to be thankful for. JWR