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.