Spectacular Varèse and Better-Than-Spectacular Brahms from Michael Stern and the Curtis Symphony

United StatesUnited States Debussy, Varèse, and Brahms: Curtis Symphony Orchestra, Michael Stern and Edward Poll* (conductors), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 17.4.2016. (BJ)

Debussy: Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un faune*

Varèse: Amériques (1973 revised version)

Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68

Earlier this season, Ludovic Morlot led the Curtis Symphony in a program that juxtaposed Berio’s Sinfonia and Mahler’s First Symphony. Those are two works that occupy somewhat related sonic-blockbuster territory. This time, it would be hard to think of two works more radically disparate in tone and style than the ones that formed the bulk of the program Michael Stern conducted.

Amériques is a veritable jamboree of spectacular sound-effects, some of them delicate, but the majority approaching or even surpassing such extreme limits of volume as can be comfortably apprehended by the human ear. Under Maestro Stern’s admirably lucid direction, the student orchestra played it for all it is worth—which is a great deal in purely sonic terms, but very little if the listener is looking for some kind of structural cohesion, for there is practically nothing of the latter variety in the score.

 In stark contrast is the magisterial formal grasp and sophistication for which Brahms is celebrated, but which—in the music of this remarkably complete master—coexist with arresting rhythmic invention, subtly unified textures, sonorities beguiling despite their avoidance of mere sensationalism, and the richest lyrical and dramatic expression. It was much to the credit of the young musicians on stage that, having played their hearts out for Varèse, they were still able to muster phenomenal powers of technique and expression for Brahms. Throughout the evening, there was superb woodwind playing to enjoy, especially on the part of a remarkably accomplished first oboe; brass and percussion rose nobly to their frequently challenging tasks; and the strings were at once disciplined and glowing in sound. Concertmaster Abigail Fayette brought some particularly luxuriant tone to the magical solo together with horn and oboe in the slow movement of the symphony.

As to interpretation, where Brahms demands far greater insight and sophistication than Varèse, Michael Stern demonstrated all the sensitivity and emotive force that are characteristic of his music-making. The first movement leapt forward with a formidable strength of pulse. The second movement fulfilled both terms of its “Andante sostenuto” marking with a tranquil yet never sluggish flow. The third movement, more intermezzo than scherzo, was cogently shaped. And the finale, set in motion with incisive work by a splendidly precise and dynamic timpanist, featured nobly gleaming horn solos and deeply sonorous trombones, and ended in full glory, the conductor having succeeded in making the return of the chorale theme in the coda majestic, without any undue application of brakes.

The performance of the Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un faune that had begun the evening showed Edward Poll (Curtis’s Rita E. Hauser Conducting Fellow) to be technically skilled if a little reluctant to draw a true pianissimo from an orchestra. In the Brahms that ended the concert, there were for me only two disappointments, one minor, the other more substantial.

I think Brahms must surely have intended the largamente marking over the recapitulation of the great main theme of the finale to indicate a slightly slower tempo than that adopted for its first appearance. The purpose would have been to allow the trumpets, now added to the texture, time to speak–but Stern took the passage, if anything, a smidgen faster, and the coloristic effect of their soft staccato was obscured.

The other occasion for regret was more serious (and if you are fed up with reading my diatribes on the subject of omitted repeats, you can skip this paragraph). When a conductor disregards the instruction to repeat the first movement’s exposition, the absence of the repetition deprives the sudden move to pianissimo just after the beginning of the development of almost all of its effect. And I do not think that musicians in statu pupillari should be imbibing the lesson that a composer’s directions may be ignored with impunity.

As I think Ogden Nash suggested, it is not the things we have done but the things we haven’t done that rankle with us, and it’s possible that the absence of that repeat may in retrospect rankle even with Stern, as it does with me. But let me not end on a negative note. With the exception of the questionable conductorial decisions I have mentioned, Maestro Stern and the Curtis orchestra gave us a wonderful concert, and it deserves to be remembered as such.

Bernard Jacobson




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