Webern and Stravinsky in a Bachian Perspective

United StatesUnited States  Bach, Webern and Stravinsky: Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord), Elisa Barston (violin), Judy Kriewall (flute), Seattle Symphony, Andrew Manze (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 29.10.2011 (BJ)

Making good use as usual of the splitting of forces to provide an orchestra for the current opera production, the Seattle Symphony offered another program in its “Baroque and Wine” series. This time around, I didn’t do the pre-concert wine-tasting, but I thoroughly enjoyed the juxtaposition of Bach with two 20th-century works, gathered under the title “Genius Inspires Genius,” and Andrew Manze’s double act as conductor and stand-up comic added to the pleasures of the evening.

Manze’s spoken introductions are a model of what such things should be (but too often aren’t), for he is able to engage his audience with relaxed wit while never sacrificing respect for the composers he discusses. To open the evening, Kristian Bezuidenhout, a young South African keyboard player who has made some particularly fine Mozart recordings on the fortepiano, joined the orchestral strings, this time on the harpsichord, for a taut and stylish reading of Bach’s D-minor Concerto. The other end of the program brought him back, in partnership with Elisa Barston and Judy Kriewall on violin and flute, for the “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 5. With sensitive support from Manze, all three soloists played beautifully. I have heard the big keyboard cadenza more the end of the first movement played more excitingly, but Bezuidenhout’s soberly thoughtful approach provided satisfactions of its own.

The sections of the orchestra on hand for this program seemed to be in excellent form. I know I shall be called a philistine by the devotees for saying this, but Webern’s music, for all its technical polish, puts me irresistibly in mind of Barry Glassner’s attack, in his illuminating book The Gospel of Food, on “the view that the worth of a meal lies principally in what it lacks.” The Symphony Webern wrote in 1927-28 is perhaps one of his most attractive works – though it’s officially atonal music, Stravinsky once remarked that he could no longer hear the first movement any other way than “in G minor.” Within its two characteristically brief movements, the work offers a soupçon of charm and a smidgen of wit. But passion, drama, intensity, and any near approach to grandeur are conspicuous by their studied avoidance.

Nevertheless, Manze fashioned a performance with all the enthusiasm and insight his introductory remarks had led us to expect, and similar qualities were evident in the more outgoing – and to me more enjoyable – Stravinsky concerto. This is a conductor who, like Nicholas McGegan, brings a welcome combination of mastery and freshness to his chosen repertoire; I hope this second Seattle Symphony appearance within two years is the harbinger of regular return engagements for Manze.

Bernard Jacobson