Today’s Symphony Hall broadcast continued the CBC’s continuing penchant for surprising its loyal listeners with programs that aren’t quite as advertised—a bit like putting away your CD’s in the wrong jewel case!
Outgoing VSO music director Kees Bakels began the concert with most of Fauré’s ethereal Pelléas et Mélisande orchestral suite. The opening “Prélude,” I suppose, didn’t make it past the editing suite so the musical stage couldn’t be set. Nonetheless, the muted strings were well-balanced and supported the noble oboist admirably in the brief “Fileuse.” Without a soprano on hand, there was no chance of hearing the ensuing “Chanson de Mélisande,” so we moved directly in this semi-suite to the famous “Sicilienne.”
Bakels picked just the right tempo and was rewarded with the best orchestral playing of the day. The flute and harp combined beautifully, maintaining a compelling lilt throughout their lines. A touch more relaxation into the coda would have put this movement over the top. Special kudos must go to the CBC’s technical staff for balancing the disparate parts (as they did throughout the broadcast) so sympathetically.
“La Mort de Mélisande” maintained its sombre tone; this virtual flute concerto moved convincingly in the early going. However, it lost much of its horizontal thrust after the trumpet calls, but the most able, discreet bassoon soon brought the tone and tenor back on track.
Camille Saint-Saëns’ fourth essay for piano and orchestra is a difficult work to bring off. The term “party piece” was coined (with affection) for music that requires much skill and showmanship but—compared to the monumental concerti of such composers as Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann—has little of substance to offer. That’s a fact—not criticism. The key, therefore, is to construct a performance that is so “together” that it squeaks, and whose ferocious technical challenges are tossed off—seemingly—effortlessly.
Pianist Jane Coop was readily up for this challenge. From her opening notes, I knew that both a wide range of colour and flexible, but directed, phrasing would make her contribution a truly great pleasure. As the heat was turned up, her remarkable virtuosity made child’s play of the fiendishly difficult passagework.
After a hesitant start, the orchestra gamely tried to match her skills. Unfortunately, the early dialogues seemed more like a first date than a well-founded, mature relationship: too often, ensemble problems arose. As things settled down, there were more moments of satisfaction, notably the wind chorale, and the liquid clarinet solo in the “homage à Schumann” section.
Coop continued to lead, producing long lyrical statements with finesse and obvious care. Impressive levels of joy-and-fun were pulled out of the dotted rhythms; the extended waltz took flight—even amid thousands of notes! Finally, following the full-throated cry of the brass and tympani, everyone relaxed and let the music play, bringing this heart-felt tribute to Bizet to a triumphant conclusion.
Host, Katherine Duncan, warned us all that the concluding piece of the program would be performed without a break between any of its movements. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony ended up sounding more like an Olympic contest for speed rather than one of the standard repertoire’s most revered compositions.
They are called movements for good reason: flow, ideas, undulations, drama, contrast, surprise, summary, and “adieu.” Then, just as critical as the notes themselves, a few seconds for reflection and anticipation. Bakels’ driving of the entire Op. 67 like a kid on the freeway with no cops in sight was a disservice to the composer, audience and players.
The composer-requested con brio (with fire) of the opening movement was produced by the burning fingers of the string section as they tried gallantly to keep up with a tempo that was based on velocity, not direction. A couple of train wrecks around the frequent fermatas added to the considerable wrong-sourced tension. I was initially reminded of Carlos Klieber's then-scandalous recording in the ’70s with the Vienna Philharmonic which was also dedicated to “speed above all else.” But at least he insisted on phrasing and fully sustained notes—however fast—whereas Bakels’ version never arrived anywhere.
Without missing a beat, he launched into the stately “Andante con moto” with a pulse that guaranteed another gold medal for the 100 bar dash. Drama, magic and mystery were left in the starters’ blocks.
Without time to flush their valves, the French horns and the rest of us were thrust unceremoniously into the “Scherzo” unable to catch our breath. In fact, the entire performance was just that: breathless. But music must breathe—it’s a component that even string players realize adds a whole new dimension to phrasing and pulse. And so we zipped along—errant entries and all—before suddenly thrust into the “victory” section without any of the foreboding, then relief that permeates one of art’s most mystical transitions. Finally, with more piccolo notes than written, it stopped.
I commend the players of the VSO for their efforts in delivering this breakneck masterpiece as well as they did. Yet I will always wonder what led Bakels down such a reckless path.
To fill the time left by the truncated Fauré and the unstoppable Beethoven, music from another VSO performance began. I went out for air. JWR