JWR Articles: Radio Broadcast - CBC Symphony Hall (Conductor: Hans Graf) - December 1, 2002

CBC Symphony Hall

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Kuerti raises the bar

How absolutely appropriate that Malcolm Forsyth’s Jubilee Overture started off this morning’s Symphony Hall program. Recorded a month before the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra’s bankruptcy announcement and broadcast three days prior to the release of its restructuring plan, let us hope that Alberta’s finest orchestral asset survives to celebrate another anniversary of its own.

Composed for the Cape Town Symphony in 1964 (and premièred under the uncompromising baton of Arthur Fiedler) this festive essay gave me what I couldn’t have from the Canadian Brass just three nights ago: a reverberant brass band (cross-reference below). From the opening measure, the CPO’s players delivered this work with assurance and verve. The tuba was particularly adept at providing just the right weight and support to his higher-pitched colleagues. Whether due to microphone placement or stick selection, the tympani came across a tad muddy, but that was my only quibble in the early going.

After sneaking in with the harp, the strings broke into full song and delivered their near-Hollywood theme with conviction. The woodwinds were a continuous pleasure as they took turns with their solos and duets over the music-box pizzicato accompaniment. Hans Graf kept things moving well and shaped some of the finest phrases and sounds that I have heard under his leadership. And, given the “Western” tone that permeates its pages (whether on the South African veldt or the plains of Alberta) this colourful score has global appeal.

I had the great pleasure of conducting my first performance of the Beethoven B-flat Major Piano Concerto with Anton Kuerti and the Nepean Symphony Orchestra many years ago. Relatively new to those works, I was thankful for Kuerti’s patience and knowledge: I learned from that experience. Ever the consummate artist, he understood the entire work—not just the solo line—and was always ready to discuss tempi, phrasing and ideas that might contribute to the final result.

Like our collaboration, his reading of Brahms’ same-tonality concerto inspired both Graf and the orchestra, resulting in the finest work I have heard from the CPO in these broadcasts. Typically, Kuerti surprised me in the opening “Allegro non troppo.” He opted for a tempo which produced a lumbering pace that, nonetheless, clarified the inner-voices and permitted the execution of the all too-often-ignored accents. That said, I found this pace verging on laborious as the movement progressed, but without it, his sublime use of understatement to lead us back and then, seamlessly, into the recapitulation would not have been nearly as effective. Point taken!

The D Minor “Scherzo” built on the success of the first movement and Kuerti’s use of every colour and touch at his disposal sparked true passion. And, hallelujah, an artist before the public today that plays—exactly—the rhythms and lengths on the page: half-notes, quarters, eighths—and just as the composer intended. To its credit, the orchestra very-often followed suit.

Solo cello, Jeehoon Kim, captured the tone, nuance and expressive beauty of the “Andante’s” opening theme with skill and artistry that reminded me of Donald Whitton’s equally convincing renditions during his prime years leading the cellos of the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Graf was an able accompanist and by the time the soloist discreetly emerged, the musical tension was palpable. Then the movement became a very large chamber piece; the music led the way, its proponents treated as equals. The “wrong-key” return was breathtaking and Kuerti’s control of the coda, its trills, then soothing repose brought this magnificent movement to a wonderful conclusion.

Given the excellence thus far, it wasn’t unexpected that there might be a few lapses in the finale, as maintaining consistency and total focus is hard, draining work. As usual, the solo line was clean and poised, but the decision to let the second subject’s phrasing take on the hair-pin dynamics of the horns in every bar, prevented this compelling idea from providing stark contrast to the opening. Later on, when Brahms does ask for more shape, there was nothing new to say.

Then, at the più presto, all was revealed. The music moved in a way I’d never heard before; many other pianists have given away the farm by playing the rest of the concerto so fast that all they have left is a wild dash for the double bar (cross-reference below). Not so Kuerti: by developing his interpretation backwards from this point, he was able to execute the final measures in a manner that demonstrated a musical intellect that many up-and-coming soloists would do well to emulate. Better to be a musician that happens to play the piano than just a pianist. Merci mille fois!

The broadcast ended with a splendidly recorded, rough-and-ready reading of Mozart’s Grand Partita for winds. The group, a subset of the CPO, was also conducted by Graf. Let’s just hope that this slimed-down band is not the restructuring solution to the economic woes of this artistic entity. JWR

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Conductor - Hans Graf
Piano - Anton Kuerti
Cello - Jeehoon Kim
Jubilee Overture (1964) - Malcolm Forsyth
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83 - Johannes Brahms
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Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra
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