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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 11, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 06
Sublime Bruckner overshadows all else
Arts & Entertainment
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Sublime Bruckner overshadows all else

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Vadim Repin at Seattle Symphony
February 5
Benaroya Hall


Well, the Berlioz wasn't French, and the 'Symphonie espagnole' wasn't Spanish, but oh my, the Bruckner was absolute heaven!

While I don't pretend to know how to make an orchestra produce a 'French' sound, I know it's not rocket science. Non-French conductors with non-French orchestras do it all the time. I think it has to do primarily with a leaner sonority from the strings. What we got in Berlioz's 'Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, Op. 23' was the usual rich sound the SSO strings do so well. Trouble was, that richness and warmth clouded the soundscape so that the winds in particular had to fight to be heard. The transparency one expects in Berlioz was altogether absent. Sure, all the notes were there, played with vitality and precision. It just didn't sound like Berlioz.

The main disappointment of the program was the first three movements of Edouard Lalo's 'Symphonie espagnole, Op. 21.' One got the impression that soloist Vadim Repin was more interested in showing off how fast he could play the notes than in any attempt to play with the Spanish rhythms. Everything was skimmed over at great-neck speed with almost no rubato and above all with absolutely no suggestion of the sensual swagger of a Spanish dance. Very little, for instance, was made of the accents in the rhythm of the 'seguidilla' with its distinctive flavor. This should be exciting music, full of fun, romance, and Latin sensuality. Instead, we got virtuosic display, impressive as it was, without any of the exotic fun.

Finally, in the 'Andante' movement, the sun came out and things warmed up. Indeed, the violin lament was lovely, supported by gorgeous harmonies especially from the brass section. And the 'Rondo' finale was just fine, being well suited to the display of fabulous technique and little else.

What happened after intermission was a minor miracle. I have six recordings of this great pastoral 'Symphony No. 6 in A major' of Anton Bruckner, each satisfying in different ways. Gerard Schwarz led a performance that would stand tall with the best of them. I am a confessed Bruckner freak, and that makes me especially critical of how a conductor handles these beloved symphonies. Schwarz and his players gave this work all the love and respect it deserves. Exquisite shadings, lovely long lines, perfectly graded slopes up the many slow crescendos, powerful climaxes, and generally perfect tempi had me crying for joy more often than at any other concert this season.

It was almost embarrassing how much I loved this performance from a conductor I have so heavily criticized in the past. I have never before heard Gerard Schwarz conduct with such heart. I felt like I was inside him as he guided each moment. Nothing was rushed. Balances were perfect. Even John Cerminaro, whose sound I have criticized often, added gorgeous sonorities with his horn solos. Orchestral fortissimos were crowned by David Gordon's silvery but powerful trumpet.

Bruckner is famous for his 'cathedrals of sound,' those tremendous slow climaxes that build usually from a soft solo woodwind instrument, up through incredibly rich harmonies of growing volume and rhythmic pulses, to fortissimos that tax especially the brass sections. The danger is letting the fortissimos become ugly, over-blown splats of sound, and of letting the players lose their lips before the final blast. Bruckner symphonies are a long blow for any brass player! Schwarz kept every climax so musical and powerful that the effect was overwhelming in the best sense. The sound of the orchestral tuttis was indescribably beautiful.

I will be forever grateful to Gerard Schwarz for this evening.

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

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