Kaleidoscopic Schumann Brushes Against Copland’s Modernist Side

United StatesUnited States Copland, Schumann: Inon Barnatan (piano), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 31.3.2016 (HS)

Copland: Orchestral Variations
Copland: Inscape
Copland: Piano Concerto
Schumann: Symphony No.2 in C major

The San Francisco Symphony and music director Michael Tilson Thomas have found a wellspring of inspiration and a gleam of execution in their latest live-performance recording project, the symphonies of Robert Schumann, and have already recorded the first and third last season in gorgeous performances. The microphones captured an assured and deftly rendered rendition Thursday of the second symphony, the least performed of the composer’s four. The fourth symphony, the final piece of the puzzle, is scheduled for May.

The Schumann Second even outclassed a first half of three thorny pieces by Copland in his modernist mode, which are mother’s milk to Tilson Thomas and this ensemble. “Copland The Modernist”—the symphony’s second recording with Tilson Thomas, issued in 1996—included two of these, the Orchestral Variations and Piano Concerto (then played by Garrick Ohlsson). What connection these works might have with Schumann, to justify their presence on the same program, may be something of a puzzle, but no matter. The music making throughout this concert was first-rate.

The Schumann started off with shifting rhythms in the low strings underlying soft brass fanfares, as if floating somewhere in space, then came into focus as the energy built in the transition to the Allegro. It clicked into place like a lock when principal oboe Eugene Izotov intoned the main theme against surging strings.

Immediately apparent was an attention to timbre and instrumental color, which continued through the entire 40 minutes. A lovely sense of unity and balance informed the brass sound. Woodwinds showed purity and sleekness, the strings a richness of tone. Violins, especially, hit just the right attitude in their meandering counterpoint to the fanfares and the oboe’s opening theme, and when called upon to take the lead—as in the breathless chase through the Allegro vivace of the second movement Scherzo—they spun a kaleidoscope of colors to accent precise rhythmic execution.

The Adagio unfolded in a glorious mix of restraint and tonal beauty, the strings creating an ache of yearning before passing along the themes to the oboe and bassoon (principal Stephen Paulson). Thirteen minutes of glorious, deftly defined but unhurried musical progression led to a triumphant-sounding finale. The fanfares wove together with individual themes into satisfying surges.

If Schumann were attempting to redefine the symphony, perhaps that’s the link with Copland in the first half. In the Orchestral Variations and Inscape, Copland wanted to move beyond the populist (and popular) music he was known for—the ballet scores of the 1940s for Appalachian Spring, Rodeo and Billy the Kid, for example—and perhaps show that he still had it in him to work in a more challenging style.

In the Orchestral Variations (1957) the orchestra reveled in the tonal colors, as well as the puckish and severe twists on a short theme that spans only six notes on the scale. The work vividly reshapes his Piano Variations of 1930, a series of 20 short segments that play without pause. This made a tart and spicy opener, followed by the even spikier Inscape. Though the composer dabbled in serial music, buried within the sharp harmonies are some luscious inside jokes and jabs at fellow musicians—not easy to hear, but the performance had a jaunty feel.

The Piano Concerto, an early effort by Copland to fit jazz into his style, dates from 1926, about the same time as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and Concerto in F (1925). Copland’s effort feels nervous compared to his fellow composer’s natural swing, and it’s not as seamless an incorporation of the jazz idiom as Copland’s Clarinet Concerto (written in 1948 for Benny Goodman). But pianist Inon Barnatan gamely invested plenty of energy into a performance that drew an equally vigorous response from the audience.

Harvey Steiman

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