Up until the past couple of weeks, there hadn't been many occasions this season to hear the Seattle Symphony and Gerard Schwarz joined in action – just three different programs (and that's counting the opening night gala). And there will be only two more programs uniting the orchestra with its longtime music director – including the annual New Year's ritual of the Beethoven Ninth – between now and mid-February. So the recent back-to-back series of concerts in mid-November offered a chance to gauge aspects of their music-making together.
Early November centered on a mini-Brahms festival, presenting both piano concertos with soloist Vladimir Feltsman, each paired with one of the symphonies (the Second and Fourth). Brahmsians will get to hear the SSO perform Brahms's First under Ingo Metzmacher in January. I caught the first of these concerts.
The opening item, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, raised alarms along a number of fronts. Brahms's Concerto is an urgent, early masterpiece, spilling over with ideas that even its lengthy duration can barely contain. The orchestral introduction, with its furious, non-decorative trills, needs to lay out a landscape of titanically charged dimensions. Yet the sparks were barely struck in what began to unfold as a routine reading.
Even the routine became muddled through several stretches of the vastly proportioned first movement, with Schwarz providing little more sense of direction than a traffic cop during non-rush hour. There was scant concern for the balance between orchestra and soloist – a particular problem for a concerto written from a symphonic point of view and requiring the piano, at critical moments, to supply quasi-orchestral cataracts of sound.
Some of the balance issues may have also resulted from Feltsman's disappointingly unenergetic mustering of dynamic power. He seemed more intent on the Concerto's moments of lyrical introspection than its explosions of raw, elemental power. The upshot was to give a limited perspective on the polarities in Brahms's far-ranging vision. Feltsman leaned into the expansive theme that is reserved for the piano to introduce with supple, almost jazzy rubato. And there was, to be sure, thoughtfulness in Feltsman's approach, making the trills in the Adagio's cadenza resonate with an ecstatic, tamed echo of their earlier prominence. The orchestra's air of prayerful calm in the Adagio was also more convincing, with the woodwinds being given space for sensitive phrase shaping. Prompted by the finale's brusque momentum, Schwarz at last whipped up a sense of energy crackling with real drive, as opposed to the sound-and-fury poses that had dragged down the first movement.
What a contrast the SSO's account of Brahms's Symphony No. 2 presented. Schwarz introduced the work with a poignant tribute to the memory of Norma Durst, a viola player with the orchestra for over a half century who died recently. Upon her retirement, Durst had said she would miss performing Brahms most of all. Schwarz and the orchestra did her honor by investing their performance with palpable warmth and color. Once mistakenly conceived of as a "pastoral" work – relaxed in relation to the thundering drama of his First Symphony – Brahms's Second is actually shot through with melancholy and a sense of elegy (so much so that Brahms scholar Reinhold Brinkmann has devoted a fascinating book, titled Late Idyll, elaborating this idea). It was deeply satisfying to hear Schwarz in a more actively interpretive stance, bringing the Second's elegiac qualities to the fore above all in the harmonically ambiguous Adagio. The finale veered out of kilter a couple times, but the musicians caught the spirit of the blazingly joyful paean that concludes the symphony.
The focus of last week's program was Shostakovich, a known specialty of Schwarz. The concert's first part included an obscurity of Benjamin Britten, Russian Funeral, presumably programmed because Britten quotes the same proletarian Russian tune Shostakovich does in his Symphony No. 11 (the main course of the evening). It turned out to be an interesting choice, considering how effective this little-known early piece of Britten actually is (from 1936). The pacifist composer wrote the work – originally titled War and Death – as a threnody for brass band and percussion in the middle of what his compatriot Auden would famously characterize as "a low dishonest decade."
A counterweight to the solemn tread of its opening march occurs in a macabre scherzo of warlike fanfares that call for mutes across the whole brass spectrum. The result sounds like a kind of fusion of Mahler and early Shostakovich. Schwarz elicited a gleaming variety of color from the brass choir – a reminder of how his early days as a trumpeter have shaped this conductor's ear. Tubas may not typically bring the word "eloquence" to mind, but that is exactly what Christopher Olka contributed to the march's atmosphere of oppressive foreboding.
Liszt's Second Piano Concerto filled out the program's first half, with Brazilian pianist Arnaldo Cohen as the soloist. In contrast to the problems of balance and solo-orchestral rapport that had vexed the Brahms, Schwarz presided over a far more deftly blended dialogue in this single-movement concerto. But what really kept the performance aloft was Cohen's perceptive poetry. This is a concerto not about keyboard pyrotechnics – though Cohen delivered dollops of big, muscular sound where needed – but about fanciful transformations. From his first, atmospheric entrance, Cohen spun entrancingly shaded phrases, teeming with personality but also well tailored to the orchestral dialogue. He embroidered the warm glow of Joshua Roman's cello in one of the concerto's more memorable passages with alluring tracery and conferred a soulful sense of purpose to Liszt's harmonic vagaries.
As for the Shostakovich Eleventh (from 1957), Schwarz led the SSO in a performance that was alternately involving and exasperating. Subtitled "The Year 1905," the symphony was presented under the guise of a patriotic memorial for the workers slaughtered by Nicholas II's Cossack guards in the infamous "Bloody Sunday" massacre. Whether Shostakovich in fact secretly encoded an ironic protest against the Soviets' brutal quashing of the 1956 uprising in Hungary is, in microcosm, the heart of the debate over his entire musical legacy. Regardless of the controversy revolving around the Eleventh's inception (itself a fascinating Cold War translation of the romantic preoccupation with "program music"), the Eleventh is a boldly ambitious work, with an imposing musical structure lasting more than an hour. A major challenge is to bring coherence to its diffuse – and often repetitively rhetorical – passages.
Schwarz took a broadly cinematic view of the music: the Symphony as a series of episodes, involved more in a kind of scene painting than in the development of musical logic. The dark, archaic sound of the low strings at the beginning effectively established Shostakovich's atmosphere of broodingly immemorial grievance. But the immense build-up never quite had its needed payoff. Paradoxically, the savage outbursts of sustained fortissimo in the second movement (purportedly depicting the massacre) came across as bland, anti-climactic: mere rhetorical balance of the similarly long stretches of very quiet music in the first. Missing was the needed sense of shock, particularly in the movement's final pummeling moments.
Somehow the ensuing threnody proved less moving than the opening Britten piece (which 20 years earlier had used the same popular melody as its basis). Least convincing of all was the finale's helter-skelter, save for its lamenting interlude featuring a solo on English horn, where Schwarz captured Shostakovich's sense that the previously tragic memories cannot be wiped away via blind triumphalism – there can be no "clean slate." Throughout the performance, there was excellent work from individual choirs – gleaming notes from David Gordon's trumpet, some remarkable phrasing from the violas – but there were also moments when sections seemed to play at cross purposes.