Three favourites that couldn’t miss: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

October 18, 2018 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he SSO programmers meet.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Led by artistic director, David Robertson, I’ll bet they have more than the occasional brouhaha over what to pluck from the massive possibilities the repertoire offers. But every so often, after the progressives have had a win with Messiaen or Berg they might all have a glass of decent red and decide it’s time for a crowd pleaser.

And what better than last night’s triple of Debussy, Saint-Sans and Sibelius in the APT Master Series? Not only were the choices headed for audience approval, but it also seemed that the orchestra loved playing them; along with the pleasure that pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet must have felt with Saint-Sans’ fifth piano concerto cascading beneath his fingers. And if you were looking for a homeland perspective on Sibelius, it would be hard to beat celebrated Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste.

Debussy’s Prélude à ‘L’Après-midi d’un faune’was the perfect opening. Inspired by Stephane Mallarme’s poem depicting a faun (half man, half goat – not be confused with the other, baby deer fawn), contemplating the warming afternoon forest. This music summarises Debussy’s groundbreaking impressionism and is considered an orchestral turning point. Stephane didn’t like the idea of Claude reworking his poem as an orchestral piece until he heard it, and was then enchanted by it – maybe because it does not attempt to be a narrative but a number of moving, transparent feelings.

The orchestration calls for three flutes – one of the SSO’s specialities and masterfully played – although I wonder how the piece would sound with panpipes instead of flutes. That unlikely occurrence aside, under Saraste’s sensitive conducting, the misty subtlety of the Prelude was transporting.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet

The furniture oompaloompers then got busy and trundled out the Steinway for Saint- Saens’ Piano Concerto No.5 in F, Op.103 (Egyptian). Its subtitle refers to the Luxor and Cairo hotels where Saint-Saens composed it under the influence of the musical idioms of the countries through which he was travelling in 1896. In fact, harmonically, it sounds more Spanish than Egyptian. Being a formidable pianist himself, Saint-Saens took no prisoners when he wrote the solo part; such are its towering technical demands. While not a lot of pianists choose to play it, Jean-Yves Thibaudet is not among the chickens. In fact, he was the soloist in the first SSO performance of the concerto in 2010 and now has returned with his superb technique to show that age has not wearied him.

From the outset, Thibaudet’s playing was as effortless as it was spectacular. Not only did he handle the technical challenges of lightning runs, octaves and massive chords with ease, but was equally at home when it came to passionate and romantic passages. We’ve had some fine visiting pianists this year and Thibaudet is among the best of them.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste

If you want to introduce somebody to the music of Sibelius you warm them up on Finlandiaand then throw them in at the deep end with his Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43.  Well, that’s how it happened to me last century, when the symphony itself was not much more than 50 years old. I loved its volcanic grandeur then and I still do now. The composer was also partial to his own work when he said: “My second symphony is a confession of the soul,”and that he “admired its severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducted the Sibelius without a score – probably indicating that he’d heard it since his birth in Finland and that we might look to him for a benchmark reading of this very popular symphony. To me, he delivered a refreshing interpretation. Taking it at a faster tempo than usual, he gave the symphony a different shape, yet he was able to establish boundaries between instrumental groupings and development sections. I couldn’t help thinking of perfectly cooked rice, where each grain is separate, yet integrated in the bowl. The orchestra responded with great accuracy under Saraste’s direction, especially the brass, which is called upon frequently for the big statements.

This was a thoroughly satisfying performance, with one exception. Towards the end of the final movement, there is a swirling build-up in the minor key, which creates a growing tension towards the orgasmic release into the major. I wanted an explosion, but got a smooth transition instead. Admittedly, this is a personal preference for which I blame Leonard Bernstein.

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