Playing Better Suited to Stravinsky than to Brahms

United StatesUnited States Respighi, Stravinsky, and Brahms: Juliette Kang (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra, Susanna Mälkki (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 22.11.2014 (BJ)

Respighi: Trittico botticelliano
Stravinsky: Violin Concerto
Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor


A certain want of warmth in the orchestral sound was well suited to the deliberately crisp and unsensual instrumental style of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. In this centerpiece of the program, Susanna Mälkki shaped strong support for Philadelphia Orchestra first associate concertmaster, Juliette Kang, whose account of the solo part was perceptive and rhythmically pointed.

By virtue (or vice) of the same characteristic, however, the evening’s opening work, Respighi’s colorful Botticelli Triptych, lost a measure of its charm. And after intermission what could up to that point be regarded as a minor deficiency became a decidedly major one.

For a conductor, in the richly scored masterpiece that is Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, to make the Philadelphia sound like a not very good orchestra constitutes a somewhat remarkable achievement. I should never have expected to criticize the orchestra’s current superb strings for thinness of tone, or the stellar woodwinds for muddy sonorities. Beyond these sonic shortcomings, there were also some unconvincing touches of timing and tempo, such as the altogether excessive speed with which the scherzo began—and which, furthermore, was not immediately restored at the moment when the opening material returned after the movement’s slower middle section.

Having in advance perused Maestra Mälkki’s impressive résumé and read an interview that showed her to be a highly intelligent and dedicated musician, I was all the more disappointed by a performance I had been eagerly looking forward to. How far the faults I have described should be regarded as serious artistic flaws and how far they resulted from purely technical considerations I am not sure. But watching her batonless beat, which is surely much too wide and flamboyant in both horizontal and vertical directions, put me in mind of a talk I heard Sir Adrian Boult give many years ago. Describing the experience of watching Arthur Nikisch conduct in Leipzig in the early years of the 20th century, Boult spoke of a beat so precise and restrained as to have given him the feeling that, in the unlikely event that Nikisch’s baton ever rose above the level of his head, the roof of the concert hall would surely fall in.

“Different strokes for different folks” is a reasonable principle to apply to conductors and their beats—there is no one identifiable method that is right for everybody. But I feel there is something in Boult’s story that Maestra Mälkki might be well advised to think about.

Bernard Jacobson