Davies Hall, San Francisco: Saturday, February 1, 2014
Sibelius – Night Ride and Sunrise, Op.55 (1908)
Rachmaninoff – Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934)
Stravinsky – Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Sibelius – Symphony No. 6, Opus 104 (1923)
The San Francisco Symphony
Osmo Vänskä – conductor
Daniil Trifonov – piano
Whenever you attend an orchestral concert, I’m sure you will have noticed that “Double D” on your ticket stub represents not the seating of the audience by bra size (an intriguing notion), but something more like a banishment to Siberia! “DD” is the last row of orchestra seats in Davies Hall, and at that distance music can become less visceral.
This time, though, I was happy to sit back in the hall, particularly for the music programmed on the second half. The Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments and the Sibelius Sixth especially appeal to refinements of sensibility, and distance from the stage always helps buff the shine of a performance. I was doubly pleased, in a different way, to note that the house was sold out. This week ‘s program brought together the return of pianist Daniil Trifonov, who shattered the rafters last year with the Russian National Orchestra (reviewed in these pages), and Osmo Vänskä, who has conducted here with great popularity since 2002.
Vänskä has been in the news this year, as the Minnesota Orchestra he built to world prominence, self-destructed needlessly before the baffled eyes of the music establishment. He ultimately resigned. The season was lost, but the pieces that remain have begun to pick themselves up, rewind like film and reconstitute an orchestra. Vänskä has agreed to lead the resuscitation here and there. What remains to be seen is whether he is merely obeying a Hippocratic Oath of music making or will, in fact, once again sign on as Music Director. In the event, curiosity and intrigue revolve around him and surely added to the desire of our listeners to attend these performances.
Everything in life has the defects of its virtues, and I was struck last evening by how much Vänskä’s desire for clarity owes to the Toscanini tradition in conducting. That is to say, his approach stresses great chordal separation, punch and forward motion. To his credit, Vänskä is no clone of anyone, and his conducting has greater sweep than Toscanini’s did, but there was a certain clipped efficiency about Sibelius’ Nightride under his baton which detracted from the atmosphere of the piece.
Nightride and Sunrise, you might say, is Sibelius’s answer to Cesar Franck’s Le Chasseur Maudit. Both compositions feature a wild horseback ride amid the mysteries of the forest. And both are effective at conveying the shadows, leaves and branches whipping past. Such a composition’s magic depends upon evoking a “What in hell was that?” quality in the listener’s peripheral hearing. It should aim to frighten. And that requires a sense of blurred imagery on the part of the conductor. Good as this performance was, it seemed to move among rows of brightly lit Bonzai trees, rather than amid gloom and green-leaf mysteries. The pervasive accompaniment figure in the ride was a bit too “hippity-hop.” Even so, I was struck by the heartfelt possibilities inherent in Sibelius’s composition. The real inspiration is in the brass chorale “sunrise” towards the end of the work. The sun rises slowly and glows with warmth. But at the same time, the harmonies over which it is suspended seem to pull the listener downward with a sense of loss. It is the time tested trick of all art to make beauty seem too fragile to last. And to make the listener cry from a desire to protect it…. The San Francisco brass players had the full measure of this.
There were no surprises to be found in Daniil Trifonov’s traversal of the Rachmaninoff Paganini Variations — just simple amazement at his technique. Compared to the owlish and sturdy Mr. Vänskä, Trifonof seems made of rubber, all long arms and floppy hair. He hovered just inches above the keyboard with a devilish look on his face and teased to great effect every mock-evil nuance in the piece. It is no accident that the ancient Gregorian plainsong we know as Dies Irae is incorporated here. It has been used to express devilishness throughout much of musical history. It lends itself wonderfully to a sort of Edgar Allen Poe “pendulum” effect, whose implacability can scare the bejesus out of people. Among purely orchestral compositions, it is most famously used in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and in the Rachmaninoff variations performed here. But you find traces of it everywhere. The Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony might even be said to have been constructed entirely around it.
The performance here was effective in every way, and Vänskä’s collaboration powerful. The famous lyrical 18th variation, which Rachmaninoff snidely insisted he wrote to please his agent, was given its full and iconic due, and the famous ending, with its quiet afterthought, brought a chuckle to the audience. But Trifonov’s encore, a selection from Stravinsky’s Firebird, left everything else he had done before in the dust. Twenty-seven hundred people simply dropped their jaws. No review is possible. You simply had to have been there!
After intermission it was palate-cleansing time with the Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments. I mean this in both a positive and a negative sense. There is something delicious and thirst-quenching about Stravinsky’s neoclassicism. The side by side consonances of his polytonal approach form curiously beautiful dissonances. And everything in your ear sweeps clean. But in fairness to depth and emotion is music, this is pretty thin stuff. The woodwind interactions indeed seem cribbed from the first half of Le Sacre, without much apparent attempt to hide the fact or create something new. But the piece is short and Vänskä did it justice. Listeners fond of a mosaic way of composing will notice how Stravinsky borrowed a great deal from late Debussy and how much the Symphonies of Wind Instruments prefigure Martinů’s Symphonies.
The Sibelius Sixth, which followed, is a beautiful exercise in emotional restraint, subtle aesthetics and economy of means. It drifts into consciousness like a mountain stream illuminated in a dream, and alternates between the ethereal and the nocturnal. The listener is carried aloft by sheer delicacy and the half-lights of Nordic bleakness. Sibelius’s use of the Dorian mode adds a sense of timeless and of the legendary to the music. Still, the piece is no weak sister, and Vänskä’s tightness of approach made it clear that he was playing for excitement. Here and there, more so as it progressed, timpani and brass pulled the listener from his reverie with edgy crescendos and something close to vicious snaps. I don’t know that any conductor could have made more of the symphony than this.
The audience was appreciative — but only two curtain calls-worth. That was to be expected. Even some conductors have resisted the music. Eugene Ormandy, otherwise an enthusiastic Sibelian and acquaintance of the composer, once commented that he no longer conducted the Sibelius Third and Sixth Symphonies, because he “didn’t understand them.” Unfortunately, he had recorded both pieces. And he was right! He didn’t understand them! But we should be grateful that recordings exist, so that music such as this can be recollected in tranquility by those who do…. Meanwhile, an excellent and stimulating concert.