Review: Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Barber, Botstein, American Symphony, 8/21/11

We dropped in late for Leon Botstein’s annual composer spotlight at Bard, this time on Sibelius, and caught only the last concert, with the Seventh Symphony and Tapiola, Barber’s First Symphony, and Vaughan Williams’ Fifth.  We missed the lectures, which promised much; the commonplace understanding of Sibelius is particularly vague, dominated by liner-note clichés of sentimental nationalism.

Botstein deserves vast praise for putting these festivals together, forcing us to reexamine our conceptions of these composers rather than merely imbibing canonical works as disembodied curios.   And he gets our thanks for performing this repertoire live.  The subterranean pedal points of Tapiola, when heard live, realize the immensity of nature as no other music can.  While the Vaughan Williams Fifth has some chord progressions that seem straight out of the soundtrack of a Biblical epic, the composer never succumbs to banality, and the whole work speaks with a disarmingly direct and straightforward eloquence.

The concerts themselves matched the standards of the talk and the programming, but not without some lapses here and there.

The Times review of last week’s festival concerts said the orchestra “played unevenly” and sounded “tired and faceless.”   That night, the orchestra’s base standard of playing was fine.  Tapiola elicited thunderous, incisive sonorities from the brass and timpani; the Barber First Symphony rattled out at high intensity; and the hushed string chords at the opening of the third movement of the Vaughan Williams Fifth had all the rapt stillness one could wish.  Clearly, the American Symphony can play very well, and Botstein knows how to elicit a powerful, dynamic sound at climaxes.

But blandness was sometimes evident in the repeated chord progressions of the first section of Tapiola.   At other moments–the rapid-fire exchanges between strings and high woodwinds later in Tapiola, the storm passage in the Sibelius Seventh–ensemble in the strings broke down momentarily.  And the seamless transitions crucial to the Sibelius pieces–single-movement works whose organic form requires a forward-driven line–came across as jump cuts.

The grueling schedule of these festivals must have something to do with this unevenness–very ambitious programs, one right after the other.  But I wonder if some of it comes from the podium.  Certainly, Botstein bears the responsibility for the distressingly quick tempo of the first movement of the Vaughan Williams Fifth.  One might have thought that a more flowing tempo would have helped him sustain the melody across the barlines, but quite the opposite; each barline made itself felt, lending a hasty yet plodding quality to the music.  This was worst in the central, faster section, a throbbing moto perpetuuo, which should be one long, exhilarating wave of building volume and intensity, but in this performance sounded like a student exercise.  What this music needs is the richly romantic approach of Barbirolli, or the eloquent austerity of Boult, or the hyper-expressive strings of Previn’s first recording.

Conversely, Botstein chose a slow tempo for the first half of Tapiola.  This had its dividends–the unearthly sonorities and the suspensions created by the dissonant pedal points made a powerful impression–but it also meant that the more lightweight, faster music sounded tentative.  (This might also explain why ensemble began to fall apart in these sections.)  Even the first passage of the work was marred by a mannerism–a comma inserted after the first note in the strings.

All this carping may leave the impression that attending this concert was an unpleasant experience.  It wasn’t.  I adore this music, and even as a small part of my brain was taking note of things I disagreed with, I was often profoundly moved.  To hear this magnificent music live, in the fine acoustics of this hall, with the excellent qualities of this orchestra, was a real pleasure, and I must thank Botstein for that.

–The Highly Opinionated Companion

About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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