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Faust and Mahler: What a combo!
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Faust and Mahler: What a combo!

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Concert by the Seattle Symphony
October 3
Benaroya Hall


At the risk of sounding like even more of a musical snob than I am, there are some melodic pieces that are too often heard. (Radio is the culprit here.) One almost dreads hearing them again. Mendelssohn's violin concerto is one of them. I envy those for whom this concert is only the fourth or fifth time they have heard it.

But, wait! After what seemed like a weak start, soloist Isabelle Faust began to pull our attention to her musical nuances, and in particular to her dynamic shadings. Turns out that what seemed at first like an underpowered beginning was part of an overall shaping of the work into a totally engaging and fresh approach. Aided by the lovely sound of the 1704 "Sleeping Beauty" Stradivarius (on loan), she made this reading memorable. Volume came readily enough when required, and the decision to begin the work with less than usual horsepower made complete sense.

Always the sympathetic accompanist, Gerard Schwarz not only held the orchestra back to match Faust's soft passages, but also demonstrated inspired dynamic phrasing, which helped greatly in making this a far from routine performance. We exited for intermission feeling refreshed and excited.

Mahler has long been near the top of the list of composers maestro Schwarz does consistently well. The 'Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor' proved to be no exception. In fact, the funeral march that opens the work seemed to me like Mahler heaven. No stereo could match the glory of these gigantic sounds. First trumpet David Gordon exceeded my already high expectations, delivering a huge tone while never losing the special silvery sound I love. Schwarz seemed to revel in Mahler's genius for building orchestral adventures, and the players looked happy to follow his lead.

Not all was sweetness and light, however. Bringing a waltzing John Cerminaro to the front of the orchestra for his third movement solos was more than a little distracting. And, while I'm not sure if this was a contributing factor, the coherence of that movement seemed to fall apart. Cerminaro's sometimes overly fat sound was nonetheless perfect here, nor could his playing be faulted.

Schwarz usually does well with slow movements, and the fourth movement (so well used in the movie of Death in Venice) was a dream. He kept the long line beautifully arched and blissfully hushed. He was aided, of course, by the floating tones from the harp of Valerie Muzzolini Gordon (Mrs. David Gordon). The soft playing by the strings was especially gratifying.

A little-sung hero, especially in scores like this in which he has so much to do, is timpanist Michael Crusoe. I confess I never realized how musical his playing was until one performance in which he had to be absent. We're lucky to have players like him in unsung roles!

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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