Ludovic Morlot’s Musical Travelogue

United StatesUnited States  Berlioz, Martinů, Debussy, and Respighi: Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 21.9.2012 (BJ)

It was about one minute into Bohuslav Martinů’s Sixth Symphony that the sheer beauty and polish of the Seattle Symphony’s playing, in this first subscription program of the season, made themselves most vividly felt. It was not a moment demanding virtuosity or even focusing on soloistic exploits—but the horn section, called on to anchor a sustained chord at that point, played with such superfine accuracy of intonation as to bathe the entire orchestral texture in a richly satisfying glow.

That effect, happily, was to be felt throughout an enterprising and well-balanced program. The Sixth Symphony is quite possibly the Bohemian composer’s greatest work. For listeners encountering it for the first time, Ludovic Morlot’s impeccably paced and warmly expressive performance must have made an ideal introduction. (They may, however, have been puzzled when the piece came to its end: the program note promised “an unexpectedly lush conclusion”; that is just about the opposite of the way I would describe the ending, which would be more along the lines of “restrained” and “gravely austere.” It might well be suspected that either the orchestra’s annotator has his ears on wrong, or I do.) Aside from the generally excellent handling of the grander orchestral effects, the piece gave the Seattle Symphony’s new concertmaster, Alexander Velinzon, the opportunity to display his gifts in some eloquently played solos.

While the symphony provided wonderful expressive ballast at the heart of the program, it was, despite its picturesque-sounding subtitle “Fantaisies symphoniques,” the only work we heard that did not set out to picture something or some place outside the music. The afternoon had begun with Berlioz’s Roman Carnival overture, where another substantial solo brought impressive work from Stefan Farkas on the cor anglais. For a film buff like me, its evocation of a street scene full of celebrating crowds brings irresistibly to mind the closing moments of Marcel Carné’s masterpiece Les Enfants du paradis—you could almost hear Jean-Louis Barrault’s desperate cries of “Garance!” as he searched for that lady among the throng.

After intermission, the first two of Debussy’s three Nocturnes provided scene-painting of a more generic nature than Berlioz’s Roman episode or its possible Parisian echoes. I thought Morlot’s account of Nuages, while admirably smooth, a tad lacking in atmosphere, but the unusually moderate tempo he set for Fêtes proved to be surprisingly effective in its rendering of another motley street scene.

Then it was back to the Eternal City, for Respighi’s Pines of Rome. Respighi is a composer about whom it is all too easy to be snobbish, and Pini di Roma in particular is often dismissed as a vulgar sort of orchestral blockbuster, notable only for its command of dazzling instrumental effects. Yet the work can make an effect of considerably greater seriousness.

In bracing contrast to the moonlit Janiculum scene with its delicately traced piano cadenza, liquid clarinet solo (finely played by Christopher Sereque), and phonographic nightingale, the Mahler-ish Tempo di marcia of the last massive panel in this aural fresco disperses the dawn mists with a vision of past splendor. The tread of the legionaries’ innumerable marching feet is vividly re-created, and the procession to the Capitoline Hill calls forth one of the mightiest orchestral crescendos ever written. But perhaps even more striking is the authentic frisson of almost palpable physical fear that Respighi’s deceptively innocent brass fanfares can produce in the listener.

Behind all the panoply of such military jubilation, the composer evidently remembers, lies a harsher reality: if Rome was not built in a day, it was not built without bloodshed either. However much Pines may indulge Respighi’s—and our—taste for the colorful and the picturesque, its deeper strength lies in its refusal to evade sterner matters. Here, by and large, is a stirring rather than merely pretty or anecdotal vision of an empire’s grandeur, and it was realized with thrilling immediacy by Morlot and the orchestra.

Bernard Jacobson