Gerard Schwarz Returns to Continue a Beethoven Tradition

United StatesUnited States Humperdinck, Beethoven: Christine Goerke (soprano), Luretta Bybee (mezzo-soprano), John Mac Master (tenor), Greer Grimsley (bass-baritone), Seattle Symphony and Chorale, Gerard Schwarz (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 29.12.2011 (BJ)

Having stepped down as music director a few months earlier, Gerard Schwarz, returning to ensure continuity for the Seattle Symphony’s practice of seeing the old year out with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was warmly welcomed by a practically full house.

For several years now, I have contributed favorable reviews of the series, and this latest outing deserves a no less enthusiastic response. In one respect, what we heard made a strikingly bigger impact than previous Seattle Ninths have made: the quartet of vocal soloists was just about the most sumptuously voiced of any I can remember encountering in the work. All four of these singers bestrode the orchestral and choral maelstrom with seeming ease. Greer Grimsley’s opening solo was massive in assurance and tone. John Mac Master dispatched his military march authoritatively, with due attention to its several little rests. The alto part offers less opportunity to shine, but Luretta Bybee met its still considerable demands admirably, and Christine Goerke actually seemed to enjoy singing that awkward top B natural that leaves most sopranos reaching rather tentatively for the pitch – her luxuriant projection of it was a delight to hear.

The orchestra and Joseph Crnko’s chorus were equally assured and impressive. One or two textures in the purely orchestral movements were not quite clearly rendered, but the reseating of the violins, split left and right, according to Schwarz’s old practice brought notable dividends in a number of passages where the firsts and seconds play antiphonally. The conductor’s leadership, too, was as crisp and impassioned as ever, and his fidelity to Beethoven’s tempo nuances was exemplary.

The evening, which ended with a jubilation that brought the audience to its feet with a roared ovation, had opened with a suite of excerpts from Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. Arranged (as the program book didn’t bother to inform us) by Schwarz himself, this latest choice as companion piece to the main event proved charming. From the very start, the horns, along with the other brass and the woodwind sections, played their soft music with a lustrous purity of intonation that had a positively nostril-clearing physical effect on at least this listener, and the rest of the orchestra followed suit splendidly. It was a pleasure to make the acquaintance in this form of some operatic numbers essentially new to the concert hall.

Bernard Jacobson