Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Sound of Tchaikovsky

Herbert Blomstedt is visiting the San Francisco Symphony again, this time for two consecutive weeks. This week's all-Tchaikovsky program inspired remarks that, as a visitor, he was preparing programs that he had never offered as Music Director. (The coming week's all-Mozart program will probably be more consistent to those who remember the Blomstedt years.) What has been interesting about his recent visits is that he has not always gone for the "crowd-pleasing blockbusters;" but his Tchaikovsky program was just that, a pair of war horses fed with all the usual old chestnuts. The intermission was preceded by the first piano concerto with Nikolai Lugansky at the keyboard, and it was followed by the sixth symphony. Those who have been following the Symphony far longer than I probably found this an occasion for a new way to listen to Blomstedt, but I think it is just as important that it also offered a new way to listen to Tchaikovsky.

The problem with many performances of the "Pathétique" symphony is that it is too easy to lapse into a heart-on-sleeve reading that magnifies every teardrop and interprets the martial third movement as a futile act of defiance. However, as those of us who watched the video of Valery Gergiev rehearsing Eugene Onegin as part of the PBS telecast from the Metropolitan Opera remember, there are more details in Tchaikovsky's scores than many performers choose to honor. Blomstedt has both the eye and the ear for honoring such details, and the result was stunning. The overall sound had a shimmering transparency to it, always both reflecting and transmitting a subtle interplay of individual voices and ensemble sounds. Yes, the brass players were still there with the requisite energy; and, as the full depiction of this emotional outpouring began to emerge, the pitched beats of the timpani became more and more offset by the deadening thuds of a bass drum. However, it was the entwining of voices (known best in the opening measures of the final movement) that provided the texture in which the thematic "utterances" emerged with a visceral impact. Such a conception of the performance had to require a major cerebral commitment on Blomstedt's part; but his bond with the Symphony is so passionately strong that the result as music bore no explicit traces of those cerebrations. This was a Tchaikovsky performance to open our ears. This may have been the composer's original intention, but this particular work has received so much exposure that it rarely happens any more. Once again, this was a performance that put sound above all other factors and reminded us all why Blomstedt's return visits can be so exciting.

There was some indication that he was trying to take the same approach with the piano concerto; but it seemed as if Lugansky was not interested in playing from that page, so to speak. This was a soloist who brought athletic strength to his performance, often making his instrument shake with the hammer-like impact of his fingers. This is the sort of performance one comes to expect from this concerto; but, since this is NBA All-Star weekend, the effect is a little bit like those "performed" slam dunks that really have nothing to do with how the game is actually played. Put another way, it is the epitome of that Brahms adjective "Lisztich" with a Russian accent. The difference, however, is that, even early in his career, Tchaikovsky had a much better sense of orchestral sound than Liszt did; and, while Blomstedt clearly understood that sense, he had to contend with Lugansky's pounding, which was ultimately a losing battle.

Needless to say, none of this seemed to matter to the audience. Between Lugansky's matinee-idol looks and his fiery keyboard technique (with its rare moments of soulful calm), he had the audience in his pocket. Blomstedt, for his part, seemed to accept that this was going to be virtuoso spectacle and that he would have his say after the intermission; so he generously provided Lugansky with all the necessary support when needed and backed off to let him do his own thing the rest of the time. If this is what it took to sell out this particularly concert, so be it. Had the crowds not shown up for the spectacle, they would not have had the opportunity to hear an all-too-familiar symphony from a new point of view.

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