Schumann and Bruckner Finely Played

United StatesUnited States Schumann and Bruckner: Isabelle Faust (violin), Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 3.11.2011 (BJ)

It was Faust’s Schumann, rather than Schumann’s Faust, that opened this ripely romantic Seattle Symphony program. Last time Isabelle Faust was here, two years ago, Mendelssohn’s E-minor Concerto was on the program, and the talented young German violinist played it with equally impressive tone and musicianship.

The same qualities were amply in evidence at this return appearance, but with results less compelling overall – which was Schumann’s fault rather than Ms. Faust’s. It is the contrast of personality between soloist and orchestra, rather than any relatively prosaic matter of virtuosity, that lies at the heart of the concerto form. The contrast presents an essentially human drama. It is no surprise, therefore, that Mozart, that supreme creator of richly human opera, excelled no less in the concerto field. Schumann, a great melodist and a great lyricist, was not at his best as a dramatist, and his Violin Concerto lacks the interplay of musical, and by extension human, character. It is, despite the composer’s reputation for poor orchestration, perfectly adequately scored, and the solo part is, so far as a non-violinist can judge, no less competently written for the instrument. But that part offers a soloist nothing in the way of profound or even mildly striking self-expression to give her performance focus and personal force. It is merely an expanse of noodling – technically arduous noodling, to be sure, and thus challenging for the player and exciting for the listener, but noodling for all that.

In the circumstances, we learned nothing new about Ms. Faust’s gifts: she simply reasserted what we already knew about her, playing once again warmly and fluently, and she was supported with aplomb by the orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard’s baton. The Danish conductor has also done well here before (in performances of Sibelius and Lutosławski), and his reading of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was a similarly convincing reassertion of quality, and the more satisfying by the same measure as this particular Bruckner is a better work than that particular Schumann.

Bruckner wrote several fine symphonies, and I sometimes feel that the one I am listening to at any particular moment is the best of them – but then I hear the Seventh again, and find myself convinced that this is really the greatest of them. From that magically steepling cello theme at the beginning onward through the work, Bruckner scarcely puts a foot wrong: there is nothing, certainly, to rival the banality that blemishes certain passages even in the generally inspired No. 4.

Dausgaard led a performance that realized the symphony’s potential in liberal measure. What was most impressive was his ability to dally when the expressive needs of a particular passage demanded it, yet without ever impairing the natural and logical progression of the music from one idea to another – and that combination, after all, is surely what symphonic form is all about. He drew superbly poised playing from the orchestra, with lambent string tone and woodwind solos, and the big heavy-brass proclamations in the finale were done with a conviction and power that thrillingly suggested the incursions of a brutal prehistoric creature into the civilized world of the more urbane music that they interrupt. The slow movement was phrased with a wonderful blend of delicacy and strength, and both here and in the finale the Wagner tubas made the noble sound that is their prerogative, even if slightly less than immaculate chording prevented them from sounding as idyllic as they can do.

Splendid accounts, then, both of one of the least effective works every written by a truly great composer, and of the supreme achievement of a composer whose greatness is less universally recognized.

Bernard Jacobson