“Bleeding Chunks” Come First in Satisfying Season Finale

United StatesUnited States  Wagner and Saint-Saëns: Joseph Adam (organ), Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 27.6.2013 (BJ)

Wagner: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde;
Overture and Venusberg Music from Tannhäuser
Saint-Saëns:         Symphony No. 3, “Organ”

This could have been an affair of shreds and tatters. As originally announced, the final subscription-series program of the season was to begin with Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony, a piece that mingles dignified inspiration with potentially banal touches, and then to continue with what Sir Donald Tovey used to call “bleeding chunks” of Wagner.

Wisely, Ludovic Morlot decided to reverse that order, and the evening took on a satisfying dynamic shape, with performances that provided a worthy conclusion to what has been a highly impressive second season for the Seattle Symphony’s music director.

It was amusing to note that both Tristan und Isolde and the “Organ” Symphony begin with soft string sonorities in slow tempo, so that an inattentive listener might well have been initially puzzled about what exactly was being played. In any case, the performance of the Tristan excerpts that emerged from those opening whispers rose to some genuinely inspiring heights of eloquence. Morlot paced the score cogently, and the orchestral playing was consistently fine, so that I was able for once to forget about my distaste for the Wagnerian association of love with death. (A quirky concert in London many years ago is, in contrast, is impossible for me to forget: audience members were invited to write down in their programs the “deliberate mistakes” incorporated in the performances—and the “correct” answer in one case was that we had heard a performance of “The Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, inadvertently omitting the intervening opera.”)

My problem with Tannhäuser is different from the one I have with Tristan: it lies in my incredulity over the kind of sprightly music that German composers, or at least this German composer, and their audiences seem to find erotic. All the prancing about that takes place on Venus’s mountain sounds to me the reverse of luscious or sensual. Again, however, Morlot drew from his players a performance that successfully reconciled the more exultant sections of the overture with a decently restrained account of the cavortings that followed.

The Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony is a work that depends more, perhaps, than most on the skill and taste of its performers. Inhabiting a soft dynamic for much of its length, it finally takes aim on the Empyrean with chorale-like proclamations on organ and orchestra that can, under inexpert hands, sound tawdry. But Morlot and organist Joseph Adam succeeded in crafting a reading in which the quiet sections were sufficiently poetic and mysterious, and the concluding celebrations, instead of seeming merely stuck on, made a convincingly climactic effect.

The orchestral playing throughout the evening was on the high level that Morlot and his musicians have achieved for most of the season. Ensemble was close to impeccable, tone and expression were cultured and compelling, and, among many accomplished solos, principal oboe Ben Hausmann’s delicious ones showed how masterfully he has adjusted his playing to the exigencies of a recent change of instrument.

Altogether, while I might have welcomed the programming of different repertoire to close the season, I have no complaints about the way Morlot’s choices were performed.

Bernard Jacobson