JWR Articles: Radio Broadcast - National Public Radio - Symphony Concerts (Featured performer: Gil Shaham) - October 27, 2002

National Public Radio - Symphony Concerts

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Searching beyond the notes

As composer-in-chief to the house of Esterházy, Haydn lived a composer’s dream: “I not only had the encouragement of constant approval, but as a conductor of an orchestra I could make experiments, observe what produced an effect and what weakened it, and was in a position to improve, alter and make additions or omissions, and be as bold as I pleased.”

Those were the days! Imagine being a member of his band, premièring and “testing” masterpiece after masterpiece. But no more: In our era of specialization, the post of composer-conductor died with Leonard Bernstein. And what a pity, for no one can know the inner-workings of an orchestra better than one who pens its notes.

With all of Haydn’s scores, every performance must be prepared by editing the music, keeping in mind the players-at-hand, the hall’s acoustics and the variety of other sources that purport to be the most scholarly and authentic publication of his intentions.

Growing up on yellow Eulenburg pocket scores, I became intrigued by the large number of revisions that prefaced every work. Comparing my edition to those of other publishers became a habit. When it came to my preparation for a performance of Symphony No.104>, I had the additional reference of a facsimile score in Haydn’s own hand. What a revelation: rests were missing, notes were changed; but more than anything, the articulation and bowing marks were far-removed from any modern score that I had studied. And so, playing musical detective, trying to divine the meaning of Haydn’s “shorthand” based in large measure on my own compositional attempts, we had a performance that, necessarily, was like no other.

Mariss Jansons’ “edition” of the final London Symphony was loaded with verve, energy and zip, but a bit short on ensemble and harmonic direction.

The orchestra sounded superb throughout, although I can’t wait to have an opportunity to “see” one of these performances so that I might better understand why there are so many “untogether” beginnings of phrases and movements—with so much to admire, those lapses spoiled the chance for an exceptional result.

The tempi were well-chosen and, no matter how brisk, the strings responded with poise and surety that is a hallmark of these fine players. As for the editing, Jansons prefers a more “off-the-string” approach, eliminating scads of slurs that permeate most editions. His dynamic plan seemed quite bland with more contrasts (notably in the spell-binding B-flat Major Trio) achieved by relaxing the tempo rather than adjusting the volume. And, with all repeats taken up to that point, I was astonished that the first ending of the Finale’s exposition was scrapped (robbing of us of its clever return, thus depriving careful listeners of a mighty “aha!,” when the development begins). No worries, there is no certainty of right or wrong.

Gremlin alert: Several times in the final movement and a few times in all that followed, I noticed a number of volume-driven distortions on the left channel which, I hope, were broadcasting and not recording problems.

Gil Shaham was the stellar soloist for Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy. I’ll confess my bias off the top: I find little substance in this overly-long showpiece for violin, orchestra and imported melodies. With the popular “hot-cross-buns” tune used as the basis for his fourth movement, Haydn plays with the public favourite but then pushes its plain envelope into artistic insight.  Bruch doesn’t know how. Nonetheless, Shaham traversed the pages with aplomb and style. His considerable skills were never in doubt. Still, I hope they will be put to better use next time.

The wee encore (Bach’s “Gavotte” from the E Major Suite) was a welcome tonic, although—without any competition from the orchestra—Shaham might have kept further from the bridge so as to give us more warmth than flare.

The broadcast concluded with Schumann’s incredible Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, where the magic of his intellect and hint of looming madness are subtly revealed in the transitions: pure music at its best.

Jansons’ reading came across more academic than emotional, never adding weight or depth to the spectacular change-of-register moments that give the long-lines their grandeur. No chances were taken; even the notorious stops and starts were delivered without incident but also without wonder (Why here? Why now? What next…?).

The “Romanze’s” famous melodic line showed off both soloists (oboe and cello) to great advantage; the concertmaster’s embellishing lines were beautifully done. Unfortunately, little attempt was made to truly differentiate between triplet or dotted-eighth-sixteenth rhythms that, ultimately, produce a time signature of 9/8 rather than the indicated 3/4, leaving us without the fantastic rhythmic collisions that set this movement apart.

The last two movements turned up the heat considerably. The Heinz Hall crowd was treated to a stirring finale that, no doubt inspired by the irrepressible trombones, brought this remarkable essay to a triumphant conclusion. JWR

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Conductor - Mariss Jansons
Featured performer - Gil Shaham
Symphony No.104 in D Major - Franz Joseph Haydn
Scottish Fantasy - Max Bruch
Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 120 - Robert Schumann
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