Public radio broadcasts are always an adventure. Transmission difficulties, editing gaffes, programming substitutions—there’s no end to the challenges. And so it was with a sense of excitement that I tuned into Sunday’s l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande broadcast, which combined a CD from Ernest Ansermet’s heyday with, relatively, current live recordings.
The program began with the 1977 LP from the London catalogue of Joaquín Turina’s zesty Danzas Fantasticas. The first movement had a compellingly colourful and invigorating energy and was only marred by the surprisingly flat horns and a few ensemble problems. The asymmetrical structure of the second—featuring a delightfully sultry cor anglais—was the best of the three. The vigorous finale, which sparkled from beginning to end, paid homage to compatriot and mentor, Manuel de Falla.
But it was all downhill from there. Vadim Repin was the soloist and Fabio Luisi was the conductor, but we got the Brahms instead of the advertised Beethoven concerto, like a meal when you were expecting prime rib only to find pork tenderloin on your plate. Webmaster note: some of us plan our listening menu around your guide.
Worse, the food wasn’t cooked. The orchestra sounded rather provincial in the autumnal opening bars and the pitch difficulties of the oboe made me anxious for the magical second movement. Soon after the soloist’s opening statements, I weighed my options and switched off the radio, disappointed that a seeming rehearsal of this magnificent work had found its way to public radio.
All this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the extra time added to my day allowed me to tune in to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s concert that featured the local début of bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff.
Mariss Jansons choose two B-flat Major Symphonies to serve as overture and entr’acte.
Of those, Mozart’s fared best. The tempi were brisk, but not hurried and the winds (oboes, bassoons and horns) delivered their lines in a refined, clear style and were just the necessary tonic to wash away the lingering bad taste from their Swiss colleagues.
As I hear more of Jansons’ work, I find myself hoping that he will pay greater attention to the articulation and harmonic implications of compositions in the classical style. Time and again the drive and inherent weight of augmented sixth chords were ignored; very often the winds and strings became at odds with each other over note lengths; on many occasions repeated notes lacked forward direction. But let me be clear—the playing and sound (bravo to recording engineer Ray Clover for a terrific effort) were excellent. I’m just artistically greedy, in search of performances that might approach the care and ove taken by George Szell or Karl Böhm with this repertoire.
The lyrical Schubert symphony was robbed of most repeats, defeating the structural plan—particularly when some sections are played twice as a result of colour changes rather than double bars. Of the four movements the “Menuetto” was the most convincing.
Thomas Quasthoff has a voice of exceptional beauty and is a mature artist of the first rank. His two sets of Mozart concert and opera arias were the highlight of the night and well-appreciated by his new throng of admirers.
“By This Beautiful Hand,” was the best of the first group. With PSO principal bass Jeffrey Turner contributing a near-flawless solo-line in perfect counterpoint to Quasthoff’s golden legato and unfailing pitch, the room was aglow in magnificent artistry. The classic “Catalogue Aria,” from Don Giovanni had those of us enjoying this work in our homes wishing for a TV simulcast to observe the soloist’s body antics and facial expressions, which were clearly a hit with those in Heinz Hall.
Quasthoff’s final offerings were more relaxed in their approach and delivery. Especially in “I Am Stupefied With Myself,” the middle register was far mellower and richer than earlier. It’s his velvet, yet sturdy lower register that continually amazes, leaving everyone hoping for more.
And more we got. Sarastro’s E-major aria from The Magic Flute was the most sensitive performance of the evening. Here, as throughout most of the other selections, Jansons followed respectfully, providing admirable support, leaving this remarkable talent to push and pull at will.
Sadly, for me, the orchestra was then “dismissed,” a piano summoned and the last sounds heard were a cocktail rendition of “My Way,” which came across closer to Robert Goulet than Frank. During the intermission interview, Quasthoff allowed that in order to keep any audience happy they must be entertained “you must surprise them,” he advised. Well, I was. After such a spectacular display of compositional genius and melissmatic brilliance, rounding off the performance with a pop tune from another time and era left me speechless. JWR