Two Views of Mendelssohn’s Symphonic Scotland

06/04/2016

Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Mendelssohn: Akiko Suwanai (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra, Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 1.4.2016. (BJ) Bartók and Mendelssohn: Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Ignat Solzhenitsyn (conductor), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 4.4.2016. (BJ)

Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 1.4.2016:

Tchaikovsky: Fantasy-Overture, The Tempest, Op. 18
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56, “Scottish”

Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 4.4.2016:

Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, BB. 114
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56, “Scottish”

Comparisons, Shakespeare’s Dogberry remarked, are odorous. But what is a critic to do when faced with the enticing opportunity to write about two performances of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 heard within the span of four days?

It may be declared at the outset, I am happy to say, that the work fared well at both concerts. One of the conductors involved, Pablo Heras-Casado, was previously unknown to me, and I was impressed alike by his evident musical sensitivity and by his winning charisma. Ignat Solzhenitsyn, by contrast, was making a return visit to the orchestra I have heard him lead dozens of times, so that his corresponding qualities of technical precision, impassioned eloquence, and profound stylistic insight were already familiar.

I have always loved the “Scottish” Symphony, but it was Solzhenitsyn’s performance that made me more vividly than ever before quite what a towering masterpiece it is. That great American pianist Russell Sherman, in Piano Pieces (his wonderful book of aphorisms about music and life), insists that for a performer there is no point in playing music if he is not prepared to take risks. For the listener, I would suggest as a corollary, a concert that does not offer revelation is like a day without sunshine or a dinner without wine.

The revelation Solzhenitsyn provided was a direct product of the risks he took. In contrast to Wagner, Mendelssohn was noted as a conductor for his tendency to set fast tempos. That predilection is reflected in his metronome marks for this symphony, especially in the scherzo. It was Solzhenitsyn’s characteristic distaste for any kind of artistic compromise that dictated the devil-may-care exhilaration he brought to that movement, abetted by Doris Hall-Gulati’s brilliantly feather-light clarinet solos. Comparable passages elsewhere in the work were equally thrilling, while the slow third movement,  though in no sense hurried, was done with a consuming sense of irresistible forward motion.

The result of all this was to illuminate the sheer individuality of the “Scottish” Symphony. In the first half of the 19th century, it must have been a task of immense difficulty, for a composer at home in the Austro-German tradition, to write a symphony that has no trace of Beethoven in it. It might be justly said that Schumann’s symphonies, great as they are, could not have taken the shape they did if his influential predecessor had never existed, whereas this Mendelssohn work, as sharply characterized and as structurally cogent as anything by that celebrated maverick Liszt, proceeds in formal and expressive ways that owe nothing to Beethoven.

The seemingly insouciant though technically expert exhilaration I have spoken of served also to relate Solzhenitsyn’s Mendelssohn to his performance of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, a work, Sir Charles Mackerras once told me, that features passages there is simply no way to conduct safely—you just have to throw them at the orchestra in the hope that they will land in one piece. They certainly did so on this occasion.

The excitement of the Mendelssohn’s faster sections contrasted to perfection with the intricate textural eloquence of the opening ensemble for woodwinds, horns, and divided violas—indeed, what superb woodwind writing the whole work contains! The relevant sections of the Chamber Orchestra realized such riches beautifully, and the glint and thrust of the string playing was no less striking. The majesty of the symphony’s highly original ending impressed most of all by the sense Solzhenitsyn conveyed of a profound tranquillity of soul, whereas it was the coda’s orchestral sheen that had been most notable in the performance of the symphony that I had much enjoyed just four days earlier.

In retrospect, and in the light of such revelations, Heras-Casado’s account of the work came to seem just a little bit—how shall I put it?—safe. I am still eager to acknowledge that this young Spaniard is a musician of substance. His baton-less technique maintains a refreshing independence between the hands—no otiose Grecian-vase symmetries here—and he communicates well with orchestra and public. But there is a certain rather angular abruptness about his arm gestures that perhaps inhibits the ultimate degree of expressiveness in the playing it elicits.

By contrast with Solzhenitsyn’s consuming nervous energy, the most satisfying moments in Heras-Casado’s “Scottish” Symphony were the several appearances of the first movement’s subordinate theme, which the strings gave forth with irresistible warmth and grace. The orchestra, for that matter, played with much of its customary skill and responsiveness in this work, though throughout the evening, even in Tchaikovsky’s fantasy-overture The Tempest, there was a certain clotted quality to the woodwind and horn textures.

What from my point of view didn’t help was the presence of the program of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, which I personally find a tedious piece. The young award-winning Akiko Suwanai played it with panache and obviously comprehensive technical skill, if with a tad more aggression at times than the music demands: I shall look forward to finding out what kind of musician she is when I hear her play Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms.

Bernard Jacobson

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