Score: Brahms and Rossini, 2 – Carter and Schumann, 0

United StatesUnited States Carter, Brahms, Schumann, and Rossini: Nicholas Angelich (piano), Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 10.2.2013 (BJ)

Carter: Instances
Brahms: Symphony No. 4
Schumann: Piano Concerto
Rossini: Overture to William Tell

Disappointed with his recent account of Beethoven’s Ninth, I looked forward to Ludovic Morlot’s Brahms Fourth with heightened interest and a touch of apprehension. I need not have worried.

It was scarcely credible that this performance, with its truly Brahmsian texture of intricately layered inner parts and wonderfully solid and resonant bass strings, came from the same orchestra and conductor as had given us such texturally one-dimensional Beethoven a few short weeks ago. Since taking over in 2011 as music director of the Seattle Symphony, Morlot has firmly established his stature in conducting music of the romantic and more modern eras, but it was good to experience this substantial step forward in his maturation as an exponent of the core repertoire of the Austro-German classics.

Further progress, certainly, remains to be made. Most importantly, I think the maestro needs to pay more attention to Brahms’s taste for elastic tempo, briefly documented in the preface to Robert Pascall’s recent Urtext edition of the symphony, and evidenced widely, for that matter, in contemporary accounts of 19th-century performance practice in general. So far he tends, once having established a tempo, to adhere somewhat too firmly to it throughout the whole course of a movement. Thus, in this case, both the subordinate theme and the coda of the first movement would have benefitted from some flexibility in the pulse.

Never mind—this was an eloquent, perceptive, and often moving interpretation of one of the greatest of all symphonies. It was delivered, moreover, with resplendent orchestral sound in the big tuttis, with the most impressive work we have heard of late from the horn section, and with some superb ensemble contributions and solos from the woodwinds, in particular principal flute Demarre McGill, who enjoyed something of a field day throughout the program. Timpanist Michael Crusoe, too, played with much artistry and power, though I thought the conductor did not balance the measured roll under Christopher Sereque’s poignant clarinet solo near the end of the slow movement clearly enough against the winds and strings to make its usual effect; yes, the drum part is marked ppp, but it needs to have proper presence in the texture.

The program as a whole was oddly shaped. Instead of occupying its customary position at the end of the concert, the symphony concluded the first half. It was to be enjoyed as the main course, in a musical repast that began with a short appetizer in the shape of Elliott Carter’s Instances, continued after intermission with Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and ended with Rossini’s William Tell overture as a suitably frothy dessert. In terms of both music and performance, the results were mixed.

The Carter, dedicated to Morlot, was receiving its world premiere in the week’s subscription concerts. Despite the respect and admiration in which the recently-deceased composer is now almost universally held, I thought this lightly scored eight-minute jeu d’esprit amounted to nothing more than the Emperor’s New Piece. Its disjointed instrumental gestures never coalesced into any cogent logical or expressive continuum. As Emperor Joseph II might have said, “Too few notes, Carter,” and, I would add, too little music.

Regarding the Schumann performance, music and performance—and indeed orchestral and solo performances—were drastically unequal. The work, I hardly need to say, is a charmer, and can be much more than that in any adequate realization. But Nicholas Angelich gave what I can only call the worst performance of the solo part I have ever heard. It could almost be summed up in the one word, “incoherent.” Along with unclear textures and harsh tone in the louder chordal passages, there was a seemingly total arbitrariness in Angelich’s rubato—shades of that notorious pianistic maverick Ivo Pogorelich, whose Rachmaninoff Second Concerto in Philadelphia a few years ago was similarly wrong-headed. I can only hope to encounter this pianist in a performance that accords better with his stellar reputation.

To their credit, Morlot and the orchestra somehow managed to stay with their wayward soloist. And any dissatisfaction was soon erased by a performance of the William Tell overture that began with gorgeous playing by Efe Baltacigil and his four fellow cello soloists. The gallop to the end was done with breathtaking lightness, worthily matching the excellence, if obviously not the deep seriousness, of the Brahms.

Bernard Jacobson