Superb Diamond and Barber from Karen Gomyo and Gerard Schwarz in Vancouver

CanadaCanada Diamond, Barber, Brahms: Karen Gomyo (violin), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Gerard Schwarz (conductor). Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 1.10.2023. (GN)

Gerard Schwarz conducts violinist Karen Gomyo and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra © VSO

David Diamond – Symphony No.4 (1945)
Barber – Violin Concerto, Op.14
Brahms – Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

It was a great idea to invite Gerard Schwarz to conduct an American program with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. He has championed modern American music for five decades and produced a resplendent catalogue of recordings of often-forgotten composers with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. At this concert, Schwarz led one of the best performances of David Diamond’s Symphony No.4 I have heard and collaborated with sparkling violinist Karen Gomyo in a wonderfully rich, involving account of Samuel Barber’s more popular Violin Concerto. If the closing performance of Brahms’s Symphony No.1 ran at a somewhat lower level of inspiration, it did not detract from the sheer joy of this concert. The orchestra participated magnificently.

David Diamond’s eleven published symphonies were composed over a long span, from 1940 to 1991. The early ones from the 1940s were strongly received, championed by the likes of Koussevitzky, Bernstein, Munch, Ormandy and Mitropoulos, but his later ones had difficulty finding an audience, given the widespread preference for more atonal compositions. Schwarz has almost single-handedly resurrected Diamond’s symphonies, recording several of them from about 1989 forward for Delos (later re-issued on Naxos), and continuing to give public performances to this day. While Diamond’s Second Symphony may be seen as his early masterpiece, his economical Symphony No.4 (1945) and his enduringly popular virtuoso piece Rounds (1944) are the easiest introduction to his art.

The Fourth Symphony is only sixteen minutes long – in three movements – but it is sophisticated structurally and has an emotional range that one often finds in longer symphonies. The opening movement, representing ‘sleep’, proceeds from a lovely lyrical unfolding on the strings, which suspends the music and gives it a seeming continuity. The strings have only a few motives, but these are subject to subtle variation and interplay, expressing a myriad of different breezy shadings while always searching for resolution. If this component is intentionally diffuse, what anchors the work’s structure is another set of relationships between the varied timpani rhythms, brass interjections and communicative woodwinds. As the music eventually becomes stronger and more dramatic, both parts come together, and one can only marvel at Diamond’s genius in balancing the two dimensions. The truculence of the brass leaves no doubt that this is an American symphony. While Schwarz’s tempo might have been on the quicker side – limiting some of the suspended airiness of the opening – he found the pulse of the music immediately and, with perceptive detailing and structural awareness, achieved as much coherence in this movement as I have heard.

It is not surprising that the work’s slow movement, written at the end of the war, is much darker, with the feeling of a dirge. Starting from strong Stravinsky-like chords, a tread begins from tender strings, carried on by the oboes. There is the feeling of regret, of homage, of burden. Then the full range of feeling comes out in massed string textures and a decisive climax, with a soft brass chorale following. I thought the conductor achieved superb concentration here, finding real intimacy at the opening, opening out the massed strings with eloquence, and engendering a feeling of wonder over the whole. The clouds completely lift for the finale, which has all the zip and buoyancy of a Haydn Rondo-Finale. It twists and turns around an upbeat tune, with active winds, sharp contrasts and moments for sassy brass – all fully exhilarating by the end.

This was an inspired performance, thoughtful and penetrating, yet fully spontaneous, and I doubt that I have ever enjoyed the work more. The symphony should be performed more frequently. The VSO’s attentiveness was noteworthy throughout, and their playing in the effervescent finale was stunning.

Whereas Diamond’s work achieved strong recognition early and was then forgotten, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto (1939) was forgotten quickly after its initial spell of popularity, only re-gaining some exposure with the celebrated recording of Isaac Stern and Leonard Bernstein in 1964. However, there were few recordings made up to 1985, and then interest exploded. (Barber died in 1981.) The principal problem with the work is that its first two movements are ultra-romantic, while the finale is a mere 3½-minute exercise in neoclassical rigour. We are all used to this format now, it seems. The immediate appeal of the former movements is that they juxtapose ravishing inward beauty and lyricism from the soloist with the spectre of doubt or darker forces, engendering all the feelings of hope, despair, resignation and possible triumph. (It is easy to think that Barber was referring to the darker forces of the coming war, but there is no documentation for that.)

It was lovely to have another visit from violinist Karen Gomyo, who grew up in Montreal and then went to the Juilliard School at the invitation of Dorothy DeLay. Her playing is distinguished by remarkable strength, technical virtuosity and range of tone colour. Early performances with the VSO tended to have great brilliance, but her eagerness and a tendency to overemphasis compromised interpretative depth to a degree. However, her 2019 VSO performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto took a large step forward, finding genuine long-run vision and command, and a lovely mix of feeling and tonal beauty. I would say her current rendering of the Barber is an even more mature vision, and one of great depth and power.

It was the purity and strength that Gomyo brought to the engulfing opening theme of the concerto that immediately signalled her command. As the work progressed, one noticed the lovely point and conviction she brought to the more energetic passagework, contrasting well with the fragile intimacy of the quieter moments. In this performance, the violinist seemed to always court illusions of hope but, quite uniquely, also gave glimpses of a burning anger just under the surface. She conveyed a feeling of stoic nobility perfectly at other points, and Maestro Schwarz was a most sympathetic collaborator, aware of the dramatic dimensions of the music. The ominous tread which underlies much of the opening movement’s development was perfectly exposed, finding the right tentative feeling for the resolute little clarinet march. The orchestra’s restatement of the opening theme in the middle was fully elemental and heaven storming.

The even darker Andante impressed by its concentration and stillness. Gomyo found a rare intimacy throughout much of it, making the violin speak on a truly personal level. This was very moving, and it is only towards the end that she briefly veered into a more public, virtuoso mode that seemed too passionate. Schwarz and the orchestra conveyed the bleakness of the movement and its stark contrasts very well, once again bringing elemental strength to its big climax. Gomyo then tore through the moto perpetuo finale with true zeal and joy: it was absolutely stunning playing, and just the right contrast from the darkness that preceded it. This was a beautiful performance overall, and I can think of few approaches I would prefer.

I am not sure there is such a thing as an ‘American’ Brahms First but, with its strong projection and linear push, Schwarz’s performance seemed a bit like one. In any event, it was a good match with the earlier works. There was much to like about the first movement – a powerful, dramatic reading – but it did not fully convey the monolithic austerity in Brahms’s writing, nor its mystery. Most importantly, the quiet transitions in the movement were given less space and sense of anticipation than they might have had, and the woodwinds often failed to find the character they needed. Again, the two middle movements moved well but tended to the literal side, with less charm, repose and easeful lyricism than usual. Barring a few moments of excitable tempo acceleration and one or two missed brass entries, the finale certainly had the power and projection to take the work grandly home. From the audience’s reaction, it did just that – yet I still found it somewhat too driving and insistent in style.

Perhaps I am just too fussy. This was an excellent way to close out a wonderful concert.

Geoffrey Newman

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