Sub-Standard Eroica Follows Berg Concerto Illuminated Only by Sublime Kavakos

United StatesUnited States Crawford, Berg, Beethoven: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 11.3.2017. (BJ)

Crawford – Andante for Strings
Berg – Violin Concerto
Beethoven – Symphony No.3 in E-flat major Op.55, Eroica

Richly gleaming textures and eloquent phrasing in Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings were emblematic of the qualities Michael Tilson Thomas can draw from an orchestra, often in unexpected areas of the repertoire – some remarkable Debussy recordings have been similarly convincing. If only the standard been maintained throughout the program, this could have been a memorable evening indeed.

Not that the orchestral contribution to Alan Berg’s Violin Concerto fell too far short. But that seemed to me a performance confirming my – admittedly minority – view that the work, hailed by a colleague the other day as the greatest of all violin concertos, is actually one of those pieces that in the hearing fail to live up to the dramatic and expressive effect their description in the program notes leads one to expect.

In any event, Leonidas Kavakos’s gorgeous account of the solo part, followed after intermission by some lovely flute and oboe playing by Jeffrey Khaner and Richard Woodhams in the Eroica Symphony, were the only other aspects of the concert that made a positive impression. The symphony, indeed, received just about the most anaemic and feeble performance I can remember hearing of this hard-to-ruin work. The crucial problem was an almost total absence of body – of sheer sonic depth – in the playing.

All four movements were afflicted by this shortcoming. How it was possible for the wonderful trio section featuring the horns in the third movement to make no impact whatsoever beggared this listener’s imagination. I suppose, in so dreary a context, the omission of the first movement’s exposition repeat might be accounted a small mercy. But against the background of some of the great Eroica performances I have heard the orchestra give over the years – I remember some particularly thrilling ones led by Riccardo Muti both in Philadelphia and on tour in Europe – this puny effort simply did not pass muster.

Bernard Jacobson

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