Altinoglu’s Brahms First Went Better Than It Sounded

United StatesUnited States Dutilleux, Mendelssohn, Brahms: Veronika Eberle (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra / Alain Altinoglu (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia. 29.10.2016. (BJ)

Dutilleux – Métaboles

Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto No.2 in E minor, Op.64

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

Alain Altinoglu’s return engagement with the Philadelphia Orchestra offered a program designed along fairly traditional lines, with a popular romantic concerto before intermission and a cornerstone of the symphonic repertoire after it. But instead of a classical or romantic overture to set the ball rolling in conventional fashion, the evening began with a roughly 17-minute piece—essentially a tone poem—by Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), one of the leading French composers of his and our time.

Métaboles was composed between 1959 and 1964. Dutilleux explained that his title—referring to a term akin to metabolism and metamorphosis—revealed his intention “to present one or several ideas in a different order and from different angles, until, by successive stages, they are made to change character completely.” (I cannot resist paying tribute to my esteemed colleague Richard Freed for his memorable explanation, in a program note some years ago, that the title had to be plural because “you get no bread with one Métabole.”) Resourcefully scored, it’s an attractive piece of orchestral high, or at least medium, jinks, if less rewarding than some of the intensely poetic works the composer would write in subsequent years, and Altinoglu secured a well-turned account of it.

Veronika Eberle’s solo playing in Mendelssohn’s E-minor Concerto that followed clearly pleased a good many members of the audience, and she rewarded their applause with an encore from Prokofiev’s Solo Violin Sonata. The young German violinist certainly makes a beautifully sweet sound—but not, to my ears, very much of it. This was a reading notably short of dynamism, not only in size of tone but also in imaginative force of interpretation. If the first movement’s tempo came anywhere close to the “Allegro molto appassionato” Mendelssohn asks for, I am the Pope. And throughout the concerto, anything like the bold inventiveness, the sheer creative effrontery, that Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg has brought to it in more than one recent performance seemed to me sadly lacking.

The conductor’s interpretation of the Brahms First Symphony after intermission was more to the point, though it had its own shortcomings. Altinoglu is perhaps better attuned to how music should go than to how it should sound. His choices of tempo were sensible, the many important transitions were effectively managed, and the Andante sostenuto second movement benefitted from a pulse that was not excessively subdivided as it sometimes is. In that movement, moreover, the return of the subordinate theme, incorporating the only violin solo in any Brahms symphony, was gorgeously floated by Juliette Kang, partnered with equal grace by Michael Thornton on first horn and by Richard Woodhams’s always ravishing oboe-playing.

What was less convincing was the muddy orchestral balance at more than one juncture. I doubt whether anyone not already familiar with the work could, amid the general orchestral welter of sound, have discerned the shapes of the rising theme and descending counter-melody in the introduction of the first movement. The trumpets, at the climax of the third movement’s trio section, were no doubt being perfectly well played, but they were not allowed the prominence that brings such glow to the texture at that point. Later on, at the lead-in to the work’s final thrilling coda, the thematic contribution of the third trombone—“marcato” according to the composer’s instruction—was similarly obscured and deprived of its effect.

And regular readers may well be fed up with my frequent animadversions on the topic of disregarded repeat marks, but I have to insist that the exposition repeat in this symphony’s first movement is one whose omission seriously damages the effect of what should properly follow it: if the conductor has not observed it, then the sudden modulation to B major at the start of the development section, and the pianissimo hush a moment later, are robbed of their sense of dramatic departure from a previously established regularity of form, and sound instead like merely arbitrary side-issues.

Maestro Altinoglu is too talented a musician to go on ignoring a truth that I, along with many conductors of our time from Riccardo Muti on down, hold to be self-evident.

Bernard Jacobson

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