JoAnn Falletta's final offering in the M&T Bank Classics Series touched on virtually every aspect of the plusses and minuses of modern concert going. Notwithstanding those items which fell into the latter category, this orchestra continues to be one of the most intrepid artistic ensembles on either side of the Peace Bridge.
Szymanowski’s Concert Overture was the curiosity, which nonetheless—despite the heroic efforts of the participants—deserves a speedy re-shelving into the library of no returns. Oh, yes, there were many fine quotes from the pens of his predecessors and contemporaries, but there were no themes or developments of substance to justify the tiring overuse of the “sincerest form of flattery.” And when the upper-strings tremoloed their way through the chromatic Tristan and Isolde “borrowing,” the result was laughable. Only John Williams would have approved.
Last-minute piano-soloist substitutions have plagued the orchestra this season (cross-reference below). William Wolfram (replacing the ailing André Watts) came to the rescue for this pair of performances of the so-called “Emperor” concerto. (The publisher’s marketing department added the moniker to Beethoven’s far-reaching masterwork.)
The opening orchestral chords and keyboard-cascading measures have bedevilled conductors and soloists alike since the première. Only the decades-old recording of the George Szell/Emil Gilels pairing with the Cleveland Orchestra has come close to perfection. I have been in pursuit of an equal or better at every subsequent hearing. That total togetherness, like opening the rehearsal-room door on chords “already-in-progress” that were achieved so long ago never had a chance with these proponents.
Wolfram seemed determined to give Mozart-like lyricism to the driving lines; Falletta acquiesced and kept time. They both took the go-faster-as-notes-per-beat-increase-and-put-on-the-brakes-when-longer-values-take-over approach—effectively robbing Beethoven of his rhythmically built-in ebbs and flows.
Both orchestra and soloist delivered countless dotted punctuations and the all-important grace notes on the wrong side of the downbeats, adding a dispiriting disruption to the master’s sense of pulse and inevitability. And, except for too few instances in the finale, Falletta let her magnificent string section flag, rather than use their full bows and left hands to sustain the magnificent bed of support so clearly delineated in the score. Special notice must go to principal bassoonist Glenn Einschlag whose every contribution added much-needed artistry.
It fell to Witold Lutoslawski to save the day by combining his enormous creativity and troubling life-experiences into an essay that is profound, original and mindful of the past.
Falletta’s rendering of the Concerto for Orchestra was easily the best work I have heard from her this season. The music director's large, clear beat was used to excellent effect, inspiring the musicians to unlock the rich colours and insights in this too-seldom played opus.
The “Intrada, allegro moderato” was the best of the bunch. Here, the music was powerfully brooding, delving into dark emotional corners too-seldom experienced in Kleinhans Music Hall. The twin pedals (tympani to start; celeste with multi-pitched drums at the end) were the compelling bookends to the rough-and-rowdy brass whose edgy utterances were absolutely appropriate.
The zest and drive of “Capriccio” occasionally got away from the tutti strings, but the solo offerings (Amy Glidden, Antoine Lefebvre and Valerie Heywood) more than made up for those lapses. When it was their turn to shine through the lines, the cellos soared with conviction. So too the basses, whose final note resonated wondrously (even though the over-eager piano tuner’s backstage ministrations could be heard as unintended counterpoint) and set the stage for their more lengthy contributions in the passacaglia that opens the third movement.
With Bartók’s “Concerto” completed nearly a decade earlier, it wasn’t surprising to hear some echoes of that masterpiece find their way into Lutoslawski’s score. Indeed, homage could be found in the closing chorale, but, unlike Szymanowski’s note-for-note lifting, Lutoslawski preferred to bow humbly and then push the art further.
With concerts like these—never a dull moment—every seat should be snapped up for next season’s programs. JWR