In a Two-Week Residency, Stéphane Denève Highlights Connesson

United StatesUnited States Connesson, Prokofiev, Strauss, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Berlioz, Respighi: Vadim Repin (violin), Nicholas Angelich (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra / Stéphane Denève (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 20 & 28.4.2018. (BJ)

20 April

Connesson – Flammenschrift
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No.1 in D major, Op.19
Strauss – Tod und Verklärung, Op.24
Ravel – La Valse

28 April

Berlioz – Overture, Le Carnaval romain, Op.9
Saint-Saëns – Piano Concerto No.5 in F major, Op.103, ‘Egyptian’
Connesson – E chiaro nella valle il fiume appare
Respighi – I pini di Roma

Charged with leading the Philadelphia Orchestra for two consecutive weeks, principal guest conductor Stéphane Denève presented a pair of programs that had the look of thematic programming. If they were thematic, however, they were far from being monothematic: there were at least three interwoven threads linking their constituent elements together in various combinations.

The works in the second half of the first program, for example, were characterized by a shared confrontation with death, explicit in the case of the Strauss, implicit in the Ravel, which, despite its basis in dance, must surely in the convulsive rhythms and aggressive dynamics of its final few minutes be understood as portraying the demise of a civilization. Then one could regard the combination of Roman Carnival, Pines of Rome, and the Leopardi quotation that supplies the title of the second Connesson piece as suggesting a central focus on Italy for the second program.

But it was perhaps Connesson’s appearance on both programs, together with the presence of Ravel, Berlioz, and Saint-Saëns, that spread a pervasively French atmosphere across these two agreeably diverse weeks, leaving only Prokofiev as an odd man out (unless the fact that his First Violin Concerto was premiered in Paris may be thought to qualify it somewhat fancifully for inclusion in the French grouping).

Maestro Denève, moreover, is also French. He is a dedicated champion of the music of Guillaume Connesson, who celebrated his 48th birthday a week after the second of these concerts. The program book contained a charming account of a collaboration between composer and conductor that has evolved beyond music to become a longstanding friendship. Flammenschrift and E chiaro nella valle il fiume appare are the second and third parts of a triptych whose first segment, Maslenitsa, Denève conducted here earlier in the season, and Connesson’s music is certainly good enough to justify Denève’s enthusiasm.

Relatively traditional in idiom it is not the kind of modern music to intimidate the typical Philadelphia Orchestra audience, and indeed it garnered a reception of considerable warmth at these concerts. The titles of the three pieces clearly harmonize with their character as tributes respectively to Russia, Germany, and Italy. Flammenschrift is prevailingly athletic music, with brisk rhythms that provide motive power without ever degenerating into excessive rigidity; E chiaro nella valle il fiume appare has passages in a similar vein, but its first principal theme is a quiet expanse of questingly lyrical string writing that I found both graceful and imaginative.

Connesson is a composer to watch, I think. The performances Denève drew from the orchestra, both in Connesson and in the other works on his programs, were consistently excellent. He seems to be a conductor that values crisp and clear sonorities over luxuriant warmth, but the crispness is never harsh. Textures were lucid, and the balance of instrumental lines and colors was managed with a sure hand. Vadim Repin, stepping in as soloist after pregnancy caused Hilary Hahn to withdraw, is a violinist I have long admired, and he played the Prokofiev concerto with beguilingly clean tone and immaculate technique. In the Saint-Saëns, Nicholas Angelich, whose performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in Seattle five years ago I disliked intensely, but this time his playing of Saint-Saëns me the pleasure of revising my opinion of a musician decidedly upwards. All right it wasn’t Richter, who made so-called ‘Egyptian’ concerto sound like a greater work than it is; but Angelich was much better attuned to the spirit of the composer than he had been with that of Schumann, and he tossed of the twiddly bits with notable aplomb.

Altogether, then, Denève’s two-week residency was as enjoyable as it was thought-provoking. I look forward to hearing more such programs under his direction in coming seasons.

Bernard Jacobson

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