Mendelssohn’s Greatest Symphony Crowns a Varied British Isles Salute

United StatesUnited States Maxwell Davies, Bruch, Mendelssohn: Juliette Kang (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 19.1.2018. (BJ)

Maxwell Davies – An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise
Bruch – Scottish Fantasy Op.46
Mendelssohn – Symphony No.3 in A minor Op.56, ‘Scottish’

In this middle program of three weeks exploring music associated with the British Isles, the only authentically British composer represented was Peter Maxwell Davies. Born in England in 1934, he moved to the remote Orkney Islands north of Scotland in 1971, and died there two years ago.

Roughly 12 minutes long, An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise is one of Max’s (as he’s generally known) lighter and more unassumingly entertaining pieces. Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra tossed it off with aplomb, and a diverting visual touch was added with the procession down the left aisle of a bagpiper from the Philadelphia Police and Fire Pipes and Drums (Gary Hughes at the performance I attended) to celebrate the work’s concluding sunrise.

This was all good clean fun. Somewhat more substantial was Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, in which the orchestra’s first associate concertmaster, Juliette Kang, deployed seriously sumptuous tone and a keen feeling for the only slightly folkish style of the German composer’s salute to Scotland. But the symphony that Mendelssohn’s ‘Grand Tour’ at the age of 20 inspired him to write several years later was the artistic gem of the program. It ranks, indeed, as one of the greatest and most powerfully individual symphonies composed between Schubert and Brahms; in a review occasioned by Philadelphia Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia performances a couple of years ago, I declared that it is ‘as sharply characterized and as structurally cogent as anything by that celebrated maverick Liszt, [proceeding] in formal and expressive ways that owe nothing to Beethoven.’

Jettisoning the baton he had used before intermission and beating with just his hands, the music director shaped the score with sympathy and grace, realizing its formal ingenuity and expressive drama to superb effect. It was perhaps the sheer polyphonic richness of sound and texture that made the greatest impact in this genuinely majestic reading. The impression was of an orchestral tissue that contained within it an inexhaustible range of potential nuances, each of the conductor’s gestures serving almost effortlessly to liberate another one of them from among the whole.

Bernard Jacobson

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