Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Commanding Sense of Sonority

When Nikolaj Znaider gave his San Francisco Performances debut violin recital last March, I was definitely one of the less enthusiastic members of the audience. The primary basis for my discontent was that, while Znaider had a strong command of metric pulse, he was not able to convert that pulse into an equally strong command of musical rhythm. By the time I heard this recital, I had already purchased my San Francisco Symphony tickets for the current season; and I knew I would be hearing him play the Johannes Brahms' 1878 Opus 77 D major violin concerto under Herbert Blomstedt. So I tried to conclude my impressions of the recital with the optimistic hope that Znaider would "play better with others."

According to Joshua Kosman's account of last Thursday afternoon's performance for the San Francisco Chronicle, Znaider is Blomstedt's protégé; and Blomstedt's presence on the podium definitely had a positive impact on Znaider. While I had found Znaider "a bit raggedy on the details" in his recital, in approaching the Opus 77, he converted these rough qualities into a raw and visceral confrontation with the intensely emotional composer of the Opus 60 C minor piano quartet, completed about three years before the concerto. This was not the usual lush display of technique soaring above a rich orchestral base; and the interpretation was such a departure from expectations that Kosman dismissed it as "rather dry and pedantic." However, anyone who knows enough about the Opus 60 to consider it as a point of departure for approaching Opus 77 will recognize that this performances was anything but "dry and pedantic;" and the validity of the approach was reinforced by the support that Blomstedt provided. By reducing the number of strings, Blomstedt provided an orchestral sound that was, indeed, dry; but it was a dryness endowed with a driving sense of urgency, which made the perfect match to Znaider's confrontational approach. Nevertheless, with all of these forays into Brahms' darker side, Blomstedt still delivered the wind chorale that opens the Adagio movement with a serenity that was as close to perfection as any performance of this work that I have heard. Nevertheless, that serenity signifies as the brief respite between the tensions of the outer movements; and, if this was not the Brahms we were used to hearing, it was certainly a side of Brahms that we could benefit from hearing.

By choosing Carl Nielsen's Opus 27 third symphony ("Sinfonia espansiva") for the second half of the program, Blomstedt demonstrated how a single symphony orchestra could easily shift from one domain of sonority to another, radically opposed to the first. The rich sounds he elicited from orchestra made it clear that all of the urgent dryness of the Brahms performance was an intentional and logical decision. Now we could return to a space more consistent with our expectations of a symphony orchestra, although there was now a different kind of urgent drive that propelled us through the four movements of this symphony.

This was clear from the very first impression, described in the program book by Michael Steinberg as "an amazing start with a series of violent and accelerating explosions, twenty-six of them, all on A." I am not sure I would call them "explosions." Indeed, I have to wonder whether or not Nielson might have been pushing back against the old fate-knocking-at-the-door cliché associated with Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 67 C minor symphony (the notorious fifth). This was the sort of panicked knocking at the door that rouses us from peaceful slumber and summons us to some task of utmost urgency; and the orchestra responded to that summons with an "expansive" burst of energy (consistent with the tempo given as Allegro espansivo). However, this movement is followed by an Andante pastorale, where all that expansive energy dissipates into an equally expansive pastoral stillness. Indeed, the stillness expands beyond the limits of the orchestra itself to include two wordless solo voices (soprano Katherine Whyte and baritone Eugene Chan), whom Blomstedt judiciously placed at the rear of the choir loft, literally above and beyond the space of the orchestra itself.

I have another quibble with Steinberg's notes where the final movement is concerned. He wrote that it "opens with a theme that marches along in what is all too easy to think of as a British war movie style of the 1940s or 50s." Perhaps I have just been thinking more about nationalism than Steinberg did when he wrote this text; but, to my ears, this theme was more of a chorale with a distinctive folk element displayed most prominently by an emphatic use of grace notes. Thinking back on the centrality of those grace notes, I was reminded of how Alban Berg had conceived of the final act of his opera Wozzeck as a sequence of variations movements, each developing variations on a non-conventional source, such as a rhythm or a single note. This opera followed Nielsen's symphony by a little less than ten years, but Berg had apparently not considered the idea of a variation on an embellishment! Nielsen's movement develops as each voice in the orchestral fabric gets its own crack at this folk idiom, concluding as all the voices come together in one final (expansive) rendering of the opening chorale.

I owe much of my understanding of Nielsen to Blomstedt. He recorded all of the symphonies with the San Francisco Symphony when he was Music Director. It has been a particular pleasure for me to have the opportunity to hear him return to these symphonies under his current Conductor Laureate status, and the Symphony certainly seems to be sharing that pleasure.

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