Sibelius: Scènes historiques - Suite No. 2
Sibelius: Symphony No. 7 in C major
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3
András Schiff (piano)
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)
When András Schiff is the weak link of the concert, you know that's something has gone very right indeed.
The Halle Orchestra of Manchester is, has been, and shall be the greatest orchestra in England for a while longer. The London orchestras may excel them technically, but no British orchestra plays with more involvement or character than this 152-year-old ensemble. They are in the midst a second (third? fourth? fifth?) golden age under Sir Mark Elder. Simon Rattle gets plaudits abroad, but the less glamorous work Elder does in Manchester is every bit as valuable.
The concert began with a gem of a rarity: the second suite from Sibelius's Scenes Historiques. In our day, we're so accustomed to thinking of Sibelius as the titanic creator of larger-than-life orchestral works. We forget that in his own day, Sibelius's reputation was built just as firmly on charming drawing-room miniatures. Sibelius may have an unparalleled reputation for moodiness, but he was also a genius creator of light music - his light creations perhaps all the more ingenious for their having so much darkness contained within them. These are pieces that should be far better known, and the performances like these are of the type that will ensure a far more attention paid.
(Zen Sibelius, from Karajan)
After giving us some unfamiliar Sibelius came the familiar, larger-than-life-itself panorama of the Seventh Symphony. Sibelius's final symphony is the work to which he had been building for his entire career. Within its twenty minutes are contained world of cosmic expression, with every symphonic gesture distilled to its absolute essence. It is one of the very great essays in the genre, and requires the hand of a master on the podium.
Mark Elder is not a fleet Sibelian. He clearly likes thick textures, extreme dynamics and beautiful sounds. Few conductors more ably bring out Sibelius's debt to Wagner than Elder. His vision of Sibelius calls to mind great Sibelians past like Herbert von Karajan and Eugene Ormandy. The fact that the Halle can be compared favorably to super-virtuoso orchestras like Karajan's Berliners and Ormandy's Philadelphians should tell you all you need to know about the quality of the Halle's playing.
(Schiff doing the Adagio Religioso as no one else could. He's only gotten deeper since the hair whitened.)
András Schiff is one of classical music's gifts to the world. When he takes the stage, you know that he will take you to a poetic sphere where only the very greatest can. In this concert, we were presented with the most poetic, least virtuoso Bartok we will ever hear. The beautiful Adagio Religioso of Bartok's Third Piano Concerto has never sounded more spiritual than it did in the hands of this master. Unfortunately the more explosive, percussive, Lisztian bravado of Bartok was nowhere to be found. Without a bit of devil-may-care vibrancy, the more extroverted Bartok passages can never come off. Virtuosity for its own sake is not in Schiff's makeup, but without it, you can't capture the entirety of Bartok's essence.
(Ol'-fashioned booty-shakin' Janacek from Rafael Kubelik)
As the final offering, we heard a performance of Janacek's Sinfonietta so insightful that it changed my view of Janacek. Janacek, the ultimate savage among composers, does not lend himself well to musicians who refuse to grab his music by the throat and shake. Or so I thought...
I've never heard a performance of this work that concentrated so much on the little details: the fast double-bass figures in the final movement, the exact pacing of all those odd rhythmic sequences. Not once did Elder accelerate for effect in the music of a composer who practically begs the musician to grandstand. In place of pagan savagery, we had an almost Bruckner-like breath (or Sibelius-like). I don't doubt that this was the type of Janacek performance for which ultra-modernists like Pierre Boulez strive. But Elder is a far more giving musician than Boulez. Within the inflexible frame which Elder set, the Halle musicians managed to make hundreds of details sing with far more flexibility in shape than that which a Boulez-type avant-gardist would allow.
So far, the finest concert of the season. Easily.