A Revealing Encounter Between Bartók and Sibelius

United StatesUnited States  Grieg, Bartók, and Sibelius: Gil Shaham (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 10.10.2015 (BJ)

Grieg: Peer Gynt, Suite No. 1
Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 2
Sibelius: Symphony No. 5

It is hard to imagine that there can be any place, in or outside the United States, where orchestral playing of such sumptuousness, polish, and spirit as prevailed throughout this evening is to be heard.

Grieg’s Peer Gynt is often thought of as a trivial piece. But Yannick Nézet-Séguin crafted a performance so sensitive—and, yes, even profound—as to thrust such an opinion aside. The opening “Morning Mood” was graced by the loveliest playing I can recall hearing from principal flute Jeffrey Khaner. The faster sections, notably “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” had all the rhythmic zest they demand, without ever descending into bathos, but it was the almost impossibly hushed pianissimo at the end of “The Death of Åse” that really took my breath away, lending the music much more depth than it commonly reveals.

What followed was a juxtaposition of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto with Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony that proved to be highly educational. This is not to say that I don’t like the Bartók: it is a work that possesses many beautiful moments, and a good deal of charm, and it was played superbly by that fine violinist, Gil Shaham, whose tone blossomed delectably after a slightly tentative first few phrases, and by the orchestra. But I can never quite resist coming to the conclusion that it is a piece, like some others written in the composer’s last few years, consisting of one damn thing after another—and some of those things, especially the intermittent big orchestral outbursts often featuring aggressive snare-drum riffs, sound, even when played by musicians of such cultivation, downright vulgar.

It would of course be ridiculous to suggest that the music director had coupled the two works on the program with the deliberate intention of showing up the Bartók—and for that matter it would be a foolish man who essayed a comparative evaluation of the two composers on the basis of these two works alone—but the Sibelius symphony we heard after intermission vividly illustrated just what is missing from the concerto: continuity of thought and consistency of inspiration. Every phrase in this masterly work grows out of what came before, creating an arc of unbreakable logic from the first note to the last (which latter, be it observed, came as the culmination of a delivery of the final six heavily accented chords in which Nézet-Séguin, unlike such self-indulgent predecessors as that overrated fellow Herbert von Karajan, realized Sibelius’s idiosyncratic rhythmic scheme to perfection).

Interestingly, continuity and unity were no less strikingly clear in this performance than in the most extraordinary, and withal convincing, reading of the work I have ever heard: under Esa-Pekka Salonen’s revelatory direction here in the 1980s, the symphony sounded totally abstract, as if the actual sound of it were quite beside the point. Nézet-Séguin’s conception was diametrically opposite to Salonen’s, offering effulgent string tone, delicious woodwind solos (especially from principal oboe Richard Woodhams at the end of the middle movement), and majestic power from the horns and everyone else in the finale, yet at the same time the structural strength of the work was never obscured by the moment-to-moment sonic luxuries. And more so than usually in performances of the symphony, even those string tremolandos that pervade stretches of the music always had character, never degenerating into mere scrubbing.

Bernard Jacobson

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