Gerard Schwarz Returns with a Characteristic Program

United StatesUnited States Mozart and Mahler: John Lill (piano), Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 7.4.2012 (BJ)

The former Music Director of the Seattle Symphony is one of the most persuasive Mahler interpreters now before the public. But Gerard Schwarz was also in charge for many years of New York’s Mostly Mozart festival. So it was highly appropriate that, for this welcome return appearance in his capacity as the orchestra’s Conductor Laureate, he should have put those two composers together on his program.

Equally welcome was John Lill’s participation as the evening’s soloist. The English pianist is so dignified and undemonstrative in his demeanor at the keyboard that it is easy to overlook his status as no less prodigally gifted a musician than any one of his contemporaries you could name.

The most marvelous thing about the performance of Mozart’s C-minor Concerto that he and Schwarz fashioned was its combination of grandeur and intimacy. Neither man is a devotee of the style of performance that treats Mozart like Dresden china. Including as it does in its scoring both clarinets and oboes, along with trumpets, timpani, and a flute together with all the other usual suspects, the C-minor work calls for the largest orchestra Mozart ever used in a concerto. The big effects such as instrumentation permits were given full value on this occasion both by the orchestra and by the soloist.

The Seattle Symphony’s playing, highlighted by fine contributions from principal flute Demarre McGill and his woodwind colleagues in the many serenade-like episodes the composer entrusts to them, was admirably solid and focused, and Lill demonstrated formidable virtuosity when his part called for it, as well as in his own long but unfailingly to-the-point first-movement cadenza. Yet what he also achieved as well as anyone I have ever heard play the work was a sense of almost unearthly stillness. It was this quality that seized the attention at once with the piano’s very first entry, and it continued to inform the performance at salient moments throughout the work, especially in a reading of the central Larghetto that was at once elegantly poised and intensely expressive.

The program had begun with the overture to Le nozze di Figaro, usually known in English-speaking circles as “The Marriage of Figaro,” though “Figaro’s Wedding” is a better translation. (Did anyone ever ask you whether you’d been invited to the marriage of Tony or Tina or whomever?) As it happens, this was the first piece I ever heard Gerard Schwarz conduct in the flesh. It was in London in the 1980s. What I loved about that performance was the way it seemed to exude the very smell of greasepaint. It was no concert-hall abstraction, but an unmistakably theatrical curtain-raiser, so that it was quite surprising when the duet scene for Figaro and Susanna didn’t follow. And this Seattle performance created just the same palpably operatic feeling.

The second half of the evening was devoted to Mahler’s First Symphony (billed in the program book as “Titan,” surely inaccurately, since that subtitle belongs only to the original five-movement version of the work including the “Blumine” movement that Mahler removed, along with all descriptive titles, five years after the work’s 1889 premiere). The Mahler will doubtless have been the major event for many in the audience, but I make no apology for according priority in the ordering of my review to Mozart. There are very few composers whose work stands on the same supreme artistic level as the music of that genius. When you have named Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms (and many would also say Bach), you may well have exhausted the list of such masters.

Do not misunderstand me. The Mahler First is, I would not for a moment wish to deny, a work of wondrous imagination, spectacular originality, sonic brilliance, and an emotional heft that is bound in any halfway decent performance—and Schwarz’s was very much more than halfway—to thrill an audience (even an audience that is cursed, as this one was, by the presence in its ranks of at least one sociopath given to stentorian bursts of coughing at the music’s most mysteriously hushed junctures). But this is also, in my personal judgment, a work coarse in thematic inspiration and jerry-built—no punning allusion to the conductor’s nickname intended!—in formal design. What, indeed, makes Schwarz such a master Mahlerian is his willingness to give full vent to the sheer seditiousness of a work like this—its lack of respect for all the classical canons of dignity and balance.

This was a supremely, unrestrainedly wild projection of the work. In consequence, though a detail here and there may have been a tad under-characterized (an example being the magical passage for a group of solo violins in the third movement, which made less of an impression on the ear than it might have), the impact and integrity of the performance as a whole ensured that it carried the audience irresistibly with it, and it was rewarded with a standing ovation of unusual vehemence.

The orchestra sounded in great shape, in the work’s frequent passages of near-inaudible delicacy as well as in its recurring bursts of raucous jollification. Ben Hausmann crafted some particularly superb oboe solos. Mahler demands especial power and brilliance from his outsize horn complement of eight players, and they covered themselves with glory: the Seattle horn section no longer perhaps commands quite the poetry that its recently departed leader John Cerminaro used to draw from it, but under Mark Robbins’s leadership (as under Jeff Fair’s in Mozart before intermission) it showed that it is still a team of surpassing strength and unanimity.

With Schwarz’s return, by the way, it was good to see the orchestra sitting the right way round on stage, with the two violin sections split to house-left and house-right of the podium. Maybe I should apologize for putting the point in such provocative, parti-pris terms—but the format, which Schwarz’s successor Ludovic Morlot has abandoned, is especially important in Mahler, whose music (like Bruckner’s and Elgar’s) abounds in antiphonal effects that are obscured when all the violins are on the conductor’s left. What the best set-up is can vary depending on the character of the particular works being played. I hope Morlot may find the flexibility of attitude to change his seating preferences from time to time as the repertoire demands.
Bernard Jacobson