The good old days

Gunther Herbig conducts the Seattle Symphony in a program full of spellbinding beauty. That's what happens when a conductor pays attention to the details and the essence of the music.
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Gunter Herbig. (Terry Harrison Artists Management)

Gunther Herbig conducts the Seattle Symphony in a program full of spellbinding beauty. That's what happens when a conductor pays attention to the details and the essence of the music.

Every once in a while one comes across a concert which creates a very pleasing time warp. It places us back in an era when conductors were not fresh out of high school, did not spray sweat over the orchestra and the first two rows of patrons, seemed to be strangely obsessed with the details and essence of the music being performed instead of choreographing gestures to please the crowd, and, best of all, obviously had lived with, thought about, and deeply cared for the works they programmed. They were part of a living tradition and acted as custodians of that tradition, eschewing the transience of fads and seeking verity without pedantry.

Such an evening was the concert of masterpieces offered by the veteran Günther Herbig with the Seattle Symphony on Thursday, April 17. There were no frills in either the programming or the performances. The first half of the concert paired Mozart's Don Giovanni overture with his last piano concerto, No. 27 in B-flat, K.595. The second half was amply filled by Schubert's "Great" C Major Symphony.

Herbig's Mozart was certainly old-fashioned in a number of ways. Twenty-two violins is a lot for this music, especially in the concerto, Mozart's most ethereal. There was plenty of vibrato, and Herbig held down the winds and brass throughout the overture, whereas recent performances tend to bring them out. I have to confess to a bias for more sharply etched period performances and I found the main Allegro of the overture a bit too plush and bland for music which must give an inkling of the high drama to come. But in its own terms this was fine playing, with a pervasive warmth that was familiar and appealing.

The concerto bloomed under the careful treatment of the excellent soloist, Garrick Ohlsson, and the ever-vigilant Herbig. The B-flat Concerto, along with the Clarinet Concerto and parts of The Magic Flute, the masterpieces of Mozart's last few months, breathes an air that seems not totally of this world. Everything, except invention, is reduced to essentials, with a minimum of virtuosity and orchestral panoply. Every note is motivic and everything sings in the most inward of ways. The piano part in the slow movement is almost skeletal in its simplicity. Ohlsson chose to not ornament the bare lines, and while it is probable that Mozart himself would have elaborated upon this virtual sketch, Ohlsson's decision was fully justified by the beauty of the result. A lovely, lyrical performance.

Herbig was in his element with the Schubert symphony. I have always felt that this work was just as important for the last two thirds of the 19th century as Beethoven's 9th, which was far too idiosyncratic to imitate. Schubert, who spent a great deal of time on this, the only completed symphony of his maturity, here laid down a blueprint for cogent expansion of the conventional symphonic forms which perfectly suited the high ambitions of 19th century symphonists. For example, the so-called "second theme" of the first movement is not the little 8-bar ditty in the winds which begins it but a whole 120-measure section with a clear internal form of its own, with the famous "trombone theme" acting as an insert or interruption. We find this again and again in Brahms, Dvorak, and others.

The main elements of Herbig's interpretation were the shaping of the orchestral sound (something many conductors seem to ignore) and the control of phrasing on both the large and small scales. In other words, both the smaller melodic groupings were given a rise and fall and the longer paragraphs were pointed by careful dynamic shadings. He was especially insistent upon soft playing. As a result we were treated to some ravishing pianissimi of the sort rarely heard in Benaroya Hall. The aforementioned trombone theme and its accompaniment were a spellbinding sound, and there were many other such places.

Many of the loud sections were again held down. Herbig had a good method of subduing the trumpets and trombones: except when he wanted full force, which was rarely, he never looked at them. When he did release the beasts, such as at the two trombone blasts which cap the strident climax of the slow movement, their power was all the more effective.

I found the first two movements almost perfect.

My only quibble was that the passage I consider the beating heart of the first movement, the wrenching modulation from C minor to A minor in the recapitulation of the second theme, was passed over too casually. In the last two movements a bit more craggy physicality in the sound would have been invigorating. Herbig, however, insisted on a continual euphony and blend and I will not complain about that at all.

There were a few hesitant moments of ensemble, a counting mistake or two, and the opening eight bars of the symphony could not be called a success, but the overall impression was pure pleasure. Some of the credit must go to the guest concertmaster, Ani Kafavian. Watching her play the exhausting first violin part of the finale was a treat in itself. In fact, if she ever wants to perform the Schubert Ninth in an arrangement for violin and piano, I'll be there! Brava to her and bravo to Maestro Herbig.


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