Dynamic Schumann at the SSO

Busoni, Schumann and Strauss was the line-up of composers on this week’s SSO subscription concert. Ferruccio Busoni’s Turandot Suite opened the program followed by Richard Strauss’ youthful Violin Concerto. James Ehnes was the guest soloist. The night closed with Robert Schumann’s 3rd Symphony “Rhenish.” For most of the audience, the pieces chosen — with the exception of Schumann’s symphony — were probably unfamiliar. While unfamiliarity can yield surprises and new discoveries, this wasn’t the case with the recent batch of SSO concerts.

At the center of the weekend’s concerts was Strauss’ Violin Concerto. It is a piece the composer wrote when he was a mere 18 years old — long before he would dazzle Europe with his arresting tone poems and inventive operas. The concerto definitely demonstrates Strauss’ facility with form and his knack for orchestration, but for all of its strengths, it also demonstrated problems found in many of the composer’s early pieces –The concerto borrows heavily from others and lacks a distinctive character.

Ehnes is a talented, violinist known among Seattle’s chamber music community because of his long-association with the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s summer and winter festivals, and through his occasional appearances with the Seattle Symphony. How or why Ehnes and the orchestra decided to play this particular concerto isn’t obvious. For his part, Ehnes‘ solo violin work was fluid and energetic. He did his best to give the piece a unique identity. Ehnes flew through the third movement’s bustling passages and torrent of notes. Behind him, the SSO was a capable partner in balance with the soloist, punctuating Ehnes work with interjections of its own.  A rarity compared to other concertos, it was good to hear Ehnes and the SSO play the piece live.

By the time the concerto finished, I wondered whether a different work would have been a better fit for the program and the talents of the soloist and orchestra. Instead of the Strauss‘ youthful effort, perhaps Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto or K. A. Hartmann’s Violin Concerto (Concerto Funebre) would have been a better choice. Both are as seldom heard as the Strauss concerto but both would have challenged the orchestra, soloist, and the audience more than the chosen concerto for the evening.

Even as I wondered whether a different concerto would have been better, I had no such reservations about the piece Schwarz picked to close the evening’s performance. Schwarz is at home in Schumann’s orchestral music and programming Schumann’s 3rd Symphony played to his strengths as a conductor.

Schumann’s propulsive energy can easily bog down. Dennis Russell Davies demonstrated this last year with a torpid reading of the 4th Symphony. Schwarz, on the other hand, kept the rhythms bouncing and the harmonies transparent. He achieved articulate playing from the string section, giving the performance the clarity of a classical symphony. This was Schwarz at his best.

The concert opened with the suite from Turandot.  For other orchestras, this piece is seldom played. In Seattle, it makes more frequent appearances on concert programs. Schwarz likes it and the orchestra plays it well. It is a percussion and timpani laden piece. Michael Crusoe and Michael Werner shined.

Next week the SSO turns its attention to Barber’s Violin Concerto and Schoenberg’s thick, romantic orchestration of Brahms’s 1st Piano Quartet.

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4 thoughts on “Dynamic Schumann at the SSO

  1. I attended Thursday and seemed to have had about the opposite reaction. I most enjoyed the Busoni, partly because I had never heard it before and because it was so vivid. James Ehnes was amazing and I thought the middle movement of the Strauss was particularly engaging. The Schumann spoke to me the least, perhaps because half a concert is enough to sate me these days.

  2. Don’t get me wrong Greg, I think the concert was well played. Schumann is good repertory for Schwarz and the SSO. It’s hard to get right but they did. The first half spoke to me the least. I was interested in the Strauss concerto. I have heard it on CD a few times where it is possible to do other things. There isn’t anything wrong with the piece but there isn’t anything right with it either. It’s early Strauss and it is in the exact mold of so many other romantic violin concerti. That said, Ehnes and the SSO were good. I said as much.

  3. I attended the Saturday concert on a visit from London and find very little in common with the comments expressed by Mr Carstensen. I was particularly looking forward to hearing James Ehnes in the flesh and I was not disappointed. His performance of the Strauss sold it to me completely. Whether it is derivative or not seems to me completely irrelevant. It is an amazing work for a seventeen year old and stands comparison with other romantic concertos, full of inventive melody with a final movement which had me (and most of the rest of the audience) on my feet cheering. I loved the Busoni too, having never heard it before, and the orchestra clearly enjoyed playing it with particularly impressive contributions from brass and percussion. I was also looking forward to the Schumann whose symphonies are, I think, still underrated. I had told my daughter who accompanied me what a great work the ‘Rhenish’ is, but what a disappointment it was. The best movement was the second, the one which most obviously led to the work’s title, and the strings in particular responded well. After that, however, it was all downhill. The phrasing was leaden and the ensemble often poor, with the woodwind apparently half asleep. By the end the audience (and apparently the orchestra) had lost interest and the half-hearted applause reflected this. Schumann deserves better.

  4. Bob, I don’t think we are too far apart – except for the Schumann — which i liked quite a bit. I think Ehnes did a good job with concerto and the Busoni was well done too. I do, however, think the pieces chosen for a particular concert are as important as how well they are played. I like to think of concert programs as artistic statements themselves. A different concerto, I think, would have turned a well played, ordinary night into an event.

    In any event, I appreciate your comment.

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