Haydn and Mendelssohn Outpace Vasks

United StatesUnited States  Haydn, Vasks, and Mendelssohn: Maria Larionoff (violin), Seattle Symphony, Olari Elts (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 21.1.2012 (BJ)

Olari Elts, who took over on the podium from the previously announced Vassily Sinaisky, showed himself with this concert to be possessed of a distinctive and well-focused musical mind. I would qualify that general judgement by adding that he seemed to me better at showing how the music should go than at realizing how it should sound.

It is always a pleasure to encounter a conductor who can get an orchestra to play really softly. Yet, while the march-like slow movement of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony – taken at a persuasively fluent tempo – was played with much delicacy, the “walking bass” line in the lower strings would surely have benefitted from somewhat more solid sonic presence.

There were passages both in this work and in Haydn’s 86th Symphony where orchestral balance did not seem to have been thoroughly well prepared. In the first movement of the Mendelssohn, the subordinate theme came through clearly only in the exposition repeat – listeners unfamiliar with the work must have been hard pressed to make out the tune the first time around – and there was a similar occasional lack of clarity in the slow movement of the Haydn. What was much more impressive was the conductor’s evident dedication to keeping these two great works always lively, pressing the tempo athletically forward, yet without any unsubtle disruptions of the pulse.

It must have been gratifying for the Latvian Elts to find music from his homeland already programmed by his Russian colleague Sinaisky, who used to be the chief conductor of the Latvian Symphony Orchestra. The work in question was the one-movement concerto for violin and strings, Distant Light, by Pēteris Vasks, the best-known of Latvia’s living composers. It had the advantage, for this performance, of an obviously dedicated soloist in former Seattle Symphony concertmaster Maria Larionoff, who sculpted the often stratospheric solo part with apparent ease and compelling lyricism.

There were occasional beautiful moments to be enjoyed, but I felt that the work suffered badly from the absence of any true harmonic pulse. For too much of its nearly half-hour duration, the orchestral bass line was tediously immobile. Despite the excellent playing of both soloist and orchestra, the consequence was that no matter whether the upper parts were occupied at any given moment with slow or fast figures, the prevailing tempo remained an almost unvaried Andante throughout.

The English musicologist-composer Donald Tovey often drew attention to the difference between the power of genuine movement nearly always evident in the works of the great classical composers, and the lack of this power in the music of too many of their successors. In this concert, Haydn and Mendelssohn on the one hand, and Vasks on the other, could well stand as exemplars of that dichotomy.


Bernard Jacobson