United States Dvořák, Bartók, and Mozart: James Ehnes (violin), Seattle Symphony, André de Ridder (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 13.3.2014 (BJ)
Dvořák: The Noon Witch
Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 2
Mozart: Symphony No. 38, “Prague”
Despite its highly attractive program, I approached this concert with a degree of apprehension. Reports of André de Ridder’s exploits as champion of such enterprises as a version of Monteverdi’s three great operas by Elena Kats-Chernin, incorporating elements of jazz, klezmer, tango, and ragtime, led me to expect some kind of maverick debunker of the musical values I hold dear.
All the more satisfying, then, to report that de Ridder turned out to be a musician of substantial talent, with an appreciation of tradition not after all surprising in a former pupil of Leopold Hager and Colin Davis. Graceful and lucid in stick technique, he began with a spirited performance of a welcome rarity: one of the series of late tone poems that constitutes a postscript to Dvořák’s symphonic oeuvre. The Noon Witch benefitted from vivid orchestral color and incisive rhythm—and these qualities proved equally characteristic of de Ridder’s work in Bartók and Mozart.
If Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto tended, in its last five minutes, to sound a bit purposeless, this was the fault neither of the conductor nor of James Ehnes, whose radiant account of the solo part challenged comparison with the greatest performance of the work I ever heard, by György Pauk with Georg Solti in Chicago more than forty years ago. The fault is, rather, Bartók’s own. Though it stands among the most popular violin concertos of the 20th century, this is not, I think, as strong a work as such too rarely heard counterparts as the concertos of Frank Martin and Carl Nielsen, not to mention Shostakovich’s masterly No. 1. Much of Bartók’s first movement is beguiling, until an outbreak of decided banality in the orchestral part lowers the emotional temperature drastically, and after the radiantly lyrical slow movement, the finale starts well. But towards the end several repetitions of the orchestral-climax-followed-by-new-solo-beginning pattern leaves this listener wondering, as in some of Bruckner’s symphonies, just where the composer can go next.
After intermission, for Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony, de Ridder dispensed with his baton, but there was no loss of clarity or precision in the result (except perhaps for a moment or two in the finale when the tug of opposing rhythms between different sections of the orchestra did not quite make its full effect). Using a fairly large body of strings, de Ridder fashioned a reading that brilliantly realized the driving dynamism of the fast movements, while appropriately relaxing the tempo a smidgen at the transition to the second subject, and giving full value to the stunningly fluent counterpoint—with strikingly effective bassoon parts—that here points forward to the more famous finale of the “Jupiter” Symphony.
The slow movement, too, paced at a stylishly flowing Mozartean Andante, was magical. The horns were impeccable at the lead-back to the recapitulation (though I’m not sure I agree with the conductor’s reading of their grace-note as a short one before the beat, where a full 16-note on the beat would surely have been more effective.) De Ridder wisely obeyed Mozart’s instruction to repeat the exposition in this movement: it is one of the most essential such repeats, since, if you omit it, the sudden key-change at the start of the development section is deprived of its dramatic impact. He also observed both repeats in the finale, where the second one serves at once to balance the movement effectively with the work’s overall shape and to allow the listener to relish again Mozart’s highly original idea of bringing a forceful tutti from the development back for two more hearings in the course of the recapitulation.
Especially in so persuasive an interpretation, it was good to hear Mozart’s 38th Symphony just a couple of weeks after Nos. 39, 40, and 41. The “Prague” is in my estimation a fully worthy companion-piece to the celebrated “final symphonic triptych,” though I have to say also that the program annotator’s insistence on just these four works as “their author’s crowning achievements in the sphere of orchestral music” is unfair to their predecessor, for No. 36, the “Linz,” seems to me a scarcely less impressive masterpiece.