Wednesday, October 10, 2012

KCS Brahms and Barber

Three works, filled with unrelenting high drama comprised this weekend's Kansas City Symphony program, Michael Stern, Music Director Conducting. Samuel Barber's gripping Symphony #1 in One Movement, that monument of Romantic concerti the Grieg Piano Concerto and one of Brahms' most forward looking and satisfying works, the Symphony # 4.

The Barber Symphony in One Movement has a prominent place in the list of modern symphonies in one movement along with the Sibelius 7th, Myaskovski 21st (a suggestion for a future concert) and the Roy Harris 3rd. Unlike these more organic symphonies, the Barber is really in four classically defined movements albeit played without a hint of pause.

The Barber's 20 minute span seemed to fly by; the performance was intense, tightly wound, focused and detailed, yet never fussy. There may be more polished performances around, but Stern captured the turbulent emotions and the aforementioned high drama as well as anyone has. He also took care to bring out the underlying classical form of the symphony, which helps to clarify and bring order to the frequent torrent of notes and themes thrown at us in a short time. Among many fine moments in this richly rewarding performance; the collapse of the first movement into the fidgety scherzo, the poignant and aching oboe (underpinned by some incredibly rich string chords and glittering harp) and cello solos in the slow movement and finally that movement's utterly shattering climax.

As an aside, I so agree with the program guide's recommended recording of this work, something I often do not do. The Zinman/Baltimore recording, originally an Argo release now on Decca, is a must hear that includes a fine Adagio for Strings devoid of all syrup, allowing us to hear a work Toscanini described as “simple and beautiful”.

I am really not sure who won the “Battle of the Grieg Concerto”; the soloist Spanish pianist Jorge Federico Osorio (who I only know through his recording of the Rodrigo Piano Concerto) or Stern and the orchestra. A wonderfully dramatic, clear and fanfare-like reading of the famous opening flourish promised a muscular, winged performance free of “Song of Norway” sentimentality. But as the concerto progressed, attentive listeners worried. Sometimes Osorio had to slow his runs and passages to keep up with the orchestra...and just as often the orchestra slowed to align with the solo. The movement never fell apart and Osorio's technique was riveting, but one could see and hear the tension between the solo and the orchestra as they struggled to stay on the same page. Redeeming the movement was Osorio's thunderous cadenza that also whispered with chime-like runs.

The short-ish central adagio could have been just a bit more languid, offering more of a contrast to the outer two movements. Osorio's prodigious technique allowed him to float the piano's gorgeous central theme over the gently pulsing strings. The orchestra's winds and especially the horns contributed some fine solo and ensemble work in this tender intermezzo.

The launch into the dancing, folk melody laced finale threatened to resume the first movement's battle but this time everyone took a deep breath and drove the concerto to a brilliant but slightly heavy handed conclusion. Special mention here to Principal flute Michael Gordon's expressive (as always) solo.

Never a work that will inspire foot tapping and finger snapping, the Brahms 4th Symphony works well when it does not over stay its welcome. The 4th is the work most often cited as proof of Brahms' progressive nature with the unusual variation-finale, tightly controlled relationships between motives and exploration of remote key signatures. Stern recognized this as well as Brahms' indebtedness to Beethoven in a well detailed performance that also pulsed with Beethoven-esque power. Some fans may have wished for more warmth and autumnal glow from the work, but for me, a brisk reading that also manages to catch the overall architecture of the work is the most satisfying and impressive.

The first movement began a little shaky and the horns were a touch off center in some of their exposed passages but all progressed to the grand climax of this majestic movement. Stern's attention to detail and the fine playing of the strings and winds allowed us to clearly hear how Brahms takes the little motive at the beginning and uses it to create an expansive sonata movement.

The 4th is overall a tragic symphony and no where is that more apparent in the slow movement. Here, oddly enough, Stern backed the drama off a bit, bringing out the mood of resignation and reflection instead of doom and catastrophe. The opening horn call was spot on, where some of their other entrances were not this evening. The always fine winds shown brilliantly as well as did the rich strings when called upon.

Stern avoided the tendency in some performances to turn the scherzo into a thumping romp, bringing to mind Sir Thomas Beecham's comment about Beethoven's 7th Symphony: "What can you do with it? It's like a lot of yaks jumping about." Stern's reading was bereft of all traces of yak, but had just enough rustic character to liven things up a bit.

The finale, an orchestral passacaglia, was grand, imposing and yes dramatic while at the same time energetic. Stern negotiated the ebb and flow of the many tempo fluctuations in this complex and unusual movement, while milking the climaxes for their power and relationship to the music in general.

Many more wonderful concerts coming up this season including free chamber concerts, a Thursday series and an organ series. At a time when many orchestras are floundering and mired in financial crisis, we are truly privileged to have our Kansas City Symphony to enjoy. See you at Helzberg Hall soon!

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