Modern Music Without Tears: Sibelius, Britten and Bartok in Seattle

Sibelius, Britten, and Bartók: Dmitry Sitkovetsky (violin), Pietari Inkinen (conductor), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 28.4.2011 (BJ)

“You know, it’s very difficult at Boosey & Hawkes,” Alberto Ginastera told me in the days when I was working for that publisher, “for an ordinary composer like me, because you have so many great composers, like Bartók, and Britten, and Stravinsky.”

I doubt very much whether Stravinsky would have been gratified to find himself thus bracketed with Britten, for whose music he expressed considerable distaste. So it was astute of Pietari Inkinen and the Seattle Symphony to couple Britten and Bartók, in this unusually stimulating program, not with Stravinsky, but with another 20th-century master – Sibelius.

This made for an evening of what used to be called “modern music without tears,” for even the chosen work by the sometimes abrasive Bartók, the Concerto for Orchestra, stands with his third concerto for piano and his second for violin among his most listener-friendly compositions. But though Britten’s Violin Concerto too is relatively euphonious in its harmonic language, it is far from being “without tears” in another sense.

This is indeed a work full of passionate lamentation, culminating in a slow Passacaglia finale that ends in more than ordinarily desolate grief. Dmitry Sitkovetsky played the work for all it is worth, which is a great deal, despite its relative rarity in the concert repertoire. Intensity and precision constituted a potent pair of qualities, which, allied with his finely focused tone, resulted in a totally convincing and indeed moving musical experience.

In his local debut, the young Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen made a highly favorable impression. Possessed of a beat that looked, from my seat in the hall, to be both eloquent and admirably clear, he drew playing of zest and luminosity from the orchestra’s strings, and was rewarded also with uniformly beautiful contributions from all the other sections.

Anyone who has heard Herbert von Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic recording of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra will be aware that it is entirely possible to give an untidy performance of the piece, but here too Inkinen kept things taut, and interspersed the music’s darker moments most effectively with an often spine-tingling brilliance, though it has to be said that one or two balances emerged somewhat lacking in clarity.

It was, in any case, the first work on the program, Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony that for me demonstrated the conductor’s talents most comprehensively. There were several passages where he created a sense of truly cosmic conflict; and the resolution of these elements was managed always with structural cogency and lambent warmth. The work also marked the opening of what amounted a real field day (or evening) for principal trombonist Ko-ichiro Yamamoto. His delivery of the symphony’s resounding solo for his instrument was noble, and he and his section colleagues met their frequently exposed challenges in both the Britten and Bartók works with no less power and expressive rightness.

Bernard Jacobson