Pining for that Delicious Spice of Danger

United StatesUnited States Stravinsky, Mendelssohn, and Mozart: HJ Lim (piano), Seattle Symphony, Jun Märkl (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 10.1.2013 (BJ)

The eyes may well be the most important tool of a conductor’s trade, but a crisp beat and an expressive left hand are also assets of no small value. Jun Märkl possesses both attributes, and they helped him to secure a thoroughly enjoyable performance by the Seattle Symphony of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite. The orchestra responded with lively string playing, spicy woodwind textures (with lovely oboe solos by Ben Hausmann), and some witty sallies by Stephen Fissel on trombone and by guest trumpeter Tony DiLorenzo. The horns, on the other hand, offered some strangely strangulated tone: what became in recent weeks of the confidence that was distinguishing Mark Holland’s playing earlier in the season?

Considering that Mendelssohn wrote a perfectly respectable Second Piano Concerto, I thought it a shade tendentious of program annotator Paul Schiavo to assert that the Concerto No. 1, next on the program, was the only important work the composer left in this form. It is, however, not a piece you can make a major personal statement with—either you can play it or you can’t. The rising young Korean pianist HJ Lim certainly can, so far as scampering about the keyboard is concerned, though a certain waywardness of rhythm made it hard for the orchestra to stay with her in the fast movements. Märkl stuck manfully to his task, but not all the ensemble problems were convincingly solved.

Far the best part of the performance was a rapt reading of the slow movement, largely a dialogue between the piano and the lower strings, with divided cellos at times playing above the violas. Very beautifully they played, too, principal cellist Efe Baltacigil leading his section eloquently, and here Lim also drew fresh and charming lyricism from her solo lines.

The encore she gave was perhaps not the best possible choice. At this stage in her young career, she may well feel that dazzlement is her strong suit. Her arrangement of a Korean folk-song certainly dazzled, and the audience roared its approval; for myself, though, I should have been happier, after Mendelssohn’s relentlessly clattery fast movements, to have been cosseted with something a little more reposeful.

After intermission came the evening’s greatest music, Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, in a performance that was a curious mixture of the stylish and the decidedly not. The horns, with Jonathan Karschney this time taking the first chair, made a much stronger impression, and indeed I felt that both the horns and the trumpets in the symphony were at times allowed to dominate the ensemble too strongly. (Critics, you see, are never satisfied, but that’s not their job, which is rather to be always asking, like Oliver Twist, for more, please.)

Whereas the slow movement was romanticized, with all manner of soulful swells and ebbs on each phrase of its main theme, the minuet, by contrast, was taken at a stylishly fast clip, one lively beat to the bar. Märkl slowed down substantially, now beating three, for the trio section; this was surely appreciated by guest clarinetist Sean Osborne, who phrased his melting solo gracefully, and would certainly have had a hard time getting through it at the main minuet tempo.

In view of that tempo, and given that this was far from being a long program, it was a pity the conductor chose to omit the repeats in the da capo of the minuet. He also disregarded the more crucial repeat of the second half of the finale, thus depriving us of one of Mozart’s most strikingly abrupt and dramatic transitions. I once heard Colin Davis bring to this finale a wonderful forward impulse, evoking the feeling that everything might at any moment fall apart, yet it never did. Märkl’s more conventional reading of the movement lacked that delicious spice of danger, but it was full of zest and infectious good humor.

Bernard Jacobson


A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.