Prokofiev Rarity Outshines Tchaikovsky

United StatesUnited States Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev: Seattle Symphony, Neeme Järvi (conductor), Arabella Steinbacher (violin), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 3.11.2012 (BJ)

Tchaikovsky: Suite from The Snow Maiden
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 6

Perhaps it is because it’s the one that sounds the most like Shostakovich that No. 6 has always been my favorite among Prokofiev’s seven symphonies. The first of them, the Classical, has its own charm, and No. 3 is worth studying for the valuable lesson a passage in it presents. (In the course of building a climax, if you take out the strings, the brass will suddenly sing out that much more effectively.)

But No. 6 is surely the most comprehensively eloquent, personal, and complex score Prokofiev ever achieved. Despite having fallen in love with it more than sixty years ago, I can count on the fingers of one hand the live performances I have encountered, by contrast with the dozens I have heard of No. 5 – a fine work, certainly, but relatively simplistic in comparison with its successor. So it was a particular pleasure to hear the superb account guest conductor Neeme Järvi fashioned at this Seattle Symphony concert.

The distinguished Estonian maestro wielded an admirably economical technique, drawing a compelling performance from the whole orchestra. I noticed only one tiny blemish – a slightly imprecise cut-off to the big chord that precedes the work’s final stretto. To set against that, there were ample stretches of rich and cultivated string tone, characterful sonorities from the woodwind choir (as well as beautifully phrased solos from Demarre McGill, Ben Hausmann, and Christopher Sereque on flute, oboe, and clarinet), powerful and often strikingly stertorous statements from the heavy brass, and impeccably crisp punctuation from timpani and percussion. The horn section, too, displayed all its familiar security of execution, and Mark Robbins played his many important solos smoothly, though I yearned for the poetry that former principal horn John Cerminaro, much missed since his departure from the orchestra last year, would surely have brought to them.

Altogether, the heights Järvi and the orchestra scaled in this work made for a memorable conclusion to an evening whose first half, devoted to Tchaikovsky, had not been a complete success. The opening suite from The Snow Maiden was indeed finely played and well worth hearing, its prevailing gentle, even hushed, tones offering a useful corrective to the common image of Tchaikovsky as a purveyor of brilliant and sometimes brash orchestral effects. But it was unfortunate for the young German violinist Arabella Steinbacher that she had to make her local debut just a week after we had been treated to Gil Shaham’s artistically and technically transcendent Mozart. (The cover of the program book, by the way, proclaimed: “Neeme Järvi conducts Arabella Steinbacher in Tchaikovsky’s magnificent Violin Concerto.” How many times do I have to tell the responsible persons on the Seattle Symphony’s administrative staff that conductors don’t conduct soloists?)

Ms. Steinbacher can certainly get around the fingerboard to some purpose, but I think her left-hand technique is better than her bow arm. There was a certain lack of consistency, not to mention substance, about her tone. I am not especially expert in violin technique, not having touched the instrument in decades, but I suspect the cause lay in a bow that too often deviated from the straight. I shall never forget a recital by Erica Morini, in New York back in the 1960s or ’70s, in which that great violinist’s bow might have been on rails, so perfect was its perpendicularity to the strings. When you pull away at the bottom of the stroke, the result is a changing position of the bow relative to the fingerboard and the bridge, and the result of that in turn is the kind of shifting sound-image that Ms. Steinbacher, surely not of set interpretative purpose, produced in this performance. In the work’s frequent spiccato passages, moreover, the sound bow bouncing on strings was clearly audible – but there was no clear aural perception of specific notes.

It is probably incumbent on me to report that Ms. Steinbacher (who, incidentally, looked stunning) totally wowed the audience. She responded to an unusually sustained standing ovation with an encore in the shape of the Largo from Bach’s C-major Solo Sonata, and this, happily, brought her best playing of the evening – smooth, thoughtful, and quite ravishing. Still, the prevailing memory I shall carry with me from this concert is of that masterly Prokofiev Sixth.

Bernard Jacobson