Carlos Kalmar, Score-Less

United StatesUnited States  Beethoven, Britten, Nielsen: Simone Lansma (violin), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Carlos Kalmar (conductor), Music Hall, Cincinnati.26.4.2013 (RDA)

Beethoven: Leonore Overture, No. 2, Op. 72
Britten: Violin Concerto
Nielsen: Symphony No. 4, Inextinguishable

Though Beethoven wrote four overtures for Fidelio—his only opera—Leonore No. 2, Opus 72 is the one used for the 1805 premiere. The overture begins with a massive tutti that seems to say, “Sit up and listen…this is an important drama.” The harmonically murky beginning evokes the depths of the dungeon to which Florestan has been sent to die, but hope is at once established by the woodwinds in a melody that evokes Florestan’s “In des Lebens Frühlingstagen” at the beginning of Act II. The woodwinds first tentatively presage, and then dive headlong with joyous abandon into an allegro that now competes for prominence with the lyrical answers of the strings. As exhilaration builds, the brass section enters the soundscape to add yet more dramatic import. Then there is one of those unforeseen interruptions Beethoven produces as if by magic: from far away, a solo trumpet twice sounds a hopeful phrase that will later to announce the impending arrival of Don Fernando, the Governor who releases Florestan from his chains. When this extended dialogue between orchestral sections seems to be nearing its ending, Beethoven provides a fast and furious stretto that states—in musical terms—that in Fidelio all ends well and harmoniously.

Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto had its premiere while Britten was living in America. War in Europe raged on—first the Spanish Civil War and then the Second World War—and pacifist Britten seems to have expressed in this three-movement work the anguish he felt over the unpredictability of life in 1940, the year of the concerto’s premiere in New York. The three movements are unusually structured: fast-fast-slow, with the composer not building towards a big finale but rather making his points cumulatively. A pianissimo opening by the timpani and cymbals makes a cryptic start, after which the solo violin is heard in a plangent phrase that hovers above agitated orchestral patterns, which gradually become percussive and martial. The scherzo-like second movement follows without interruption, and insistently uses an angular ostinato pattern that only ceases its perpetual motion at the very end, when a showy cadenza brings it to a close.

The final movement is a slow, stately, melancholy passacaglia built on an ambiguous tonality hinted at by the brass, while small-scale variations are played by the soloist. A continuo-like ground bass slowly reduces itself to a mere hint of its initially-assured self, with the solo violin asserting itself above it. The work ends with the violin playing a sustained trill that ends this sad and moving composition with an eerily-gradual cessation of sound. The term morendo (dying-away) describes this moment better than any words could.

Like Britten’s Violin Concerto, Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony was composed during a time of strife—the First World War. Nielsen wrote in a letter to his wife that he was not setting out to create a “program” piece but that he wanted to express “that which is inextinguishable…the elemental will to live…”

Masterfully scored (and enormous), The Inextinguishable requires a full string section, a sizeable woodwind section of twelve, eleven brass plus two sets of timpani that are set to wage aural war on each other. The first movement begins with tonal divergences, as D minor struggles to assert itself while an unwelcome hint of C major keeps re-appearing, uninvited. The woodwinds provide brief relief in the second movement, later rapidly connecting to the third, in which the strings are allowed a cantabile moment. This builds towards a moving ending in which a lone oboe is left playing against the delicately accompanying strings, as if it were a single survivor in a desolate battlefield.

The harmonic and contrapuntal struggle of the opening is brought back by Nielsen in the finale when the two timpanists face off and compete for prominence from opposite sides of the stage. Is warfare starting all over again? Nielsen leads this compelling work to an ending in the never-anticipated key of E major, just as life often leads us to the least expected and often least wanted of places.

Uruguayan-Austrian Carlos Kalmar is the principal conductor and music director of the Oregon Symphony. His conducting of all night was impressive, even more so in that he never looked at the music stand in front of him, appearing to have committed the entire program to memory. The Nielsen is lengthy and episodic, as is the Britten, and both can mean trouble for an inexperienced conductor. Kalmar kept the musical reins well in hand, leading a compelling reading of the Beethoven and a moving account of the Britten—always at the service of the excellent Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma, who played with passion, precision and a clear vision of where she and Kalmar wanted to go with this labyrinthine creation.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is, simply and briefly said, one of the great American philharmonic ensembles. The strings have a mellow, deep sound that is miraculously accurate in tuning and precision. The brass are—alright I’ll say it and let the chips fall where they may—as good as their neighbors to the north, Chicago and Cleveland. There! The woodwinds are pure gold and I’ll resist here naming any names among their ranks, all of them top-notch.

I’ve been listening to these musicians for three years now under different batons: Paavo Järvi, Louis Langrée, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos—the list is long and illustrious—and the CSO players have responded to each by raising the bar of their playing to the level of greatness.  Last night, maestro Kalmar was more than good, letting the percussion section cut loose in the Nielsen finale—especially timpanists Patrick Schleker and Richard Jensen—to create a storm of sound inside Music Hall. In the subdued moments, Kalmar was also in command but again let his players soar and breathe as one. It was a memorable evening.


Rafael de Acha