Glorious Singing, Lacklustre Playing from Danes on Tour

United StatesUnited States Nielsen, Wagner, Beethoven: Deborah Voigt (soprano), Danish National Symphony Orchestra / Fabio Luisi (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 2.4.2017. (HS)

Nielsen Helios Overture
Wagner Wesendonck Lieder
Beethoven — Symphony No.3 in E-flat major, ‘Eroica’

Hand Deborah Voigt any music by Wagner and she excels. Combine her with Fabio Luisi, with whom she has collaborated in several outstanding productions during his tenure as principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, and magic should ensue. Sunday evening, however—in the first of two concerts at Davies Symphony Hall with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra—only occasional moments glowed.

Voigt was her usual powerhouse self in Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, the centerpiece of the first half. Her soprano handled long stretches of low notes with a nice balance of power and finesse, and rose to impressive climaxes. Luisi, more physically active as a conductor than I’ve seen before, worked hard to create a detailed approach.

He achieved exactly that at times when the orchestral music foreshadowed the composer’s later Tristan und Isolde, and in quieter moments when the subtleties of instrumental color combined with a softly flowing vocal line. If the crescendos and climaxes could seem forced, Voigt’s familiarity with Wagnerian style, her comfort with the language, and her long association with Luisi paid dividends.

There were luminous stretches of “Im Treibhaus” when Voigt sang against passages now familiar from the prelude to Act III of Tristan. Hints of the opera’s love duet framed a gorgeous portion of “Träume”, the final song, and brought things to a finely wrought close.

Nothing ever went awry, or for that matter elsewhere on this stop of the orchestra’s California tour. But time after time there was the sense that things did not quite jell. Luisi is at the start of his tenure as the orchestra’s principal conductor, which may account for the seemingly tenuous connection, at times, between him and the orchestra.

Luisi was emphatic and demonstrative in his conducting, but what emerged from the orchestra was pedestrian. Their traversal of Beethoven’s Eroica missed very few notes, but rhythms did not spring. Attacks were soft-edged. Even the slow-paced pulse of the second movement (marked “Marcia funebre: adagio assai”) lacked the surges that give it definition. The fast tempos of the scherzo and finale felt deliberate rather than joyfully improvisational.

(NB: This was the only performance of the Eroica on the Danes’ tour. Mahler’s Symphony No.1 held this position in the orchestra’s other programs. But the San Francisco Symphony, which presented this concert under its Great Performers Series, had just played the Mahler in its subscription concerts last week.)

This orchestra has always shown an affinity for Nielsen, and the opener, Nielsen’s Helios Overture, produced the most assured and expressive playing. A 12-minute, dawn-to-dusk evocation of the sun’s path across the sky, the overture starts with quiet pedal tones in the low strings and rises to a rich brilliance, before receding to the same gesture in the low strings at the end.

Harvey Steiman

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