Exciting Ravel, robust Brahms at the SSO

By Philippa Kiraly

Russian conductor Vassily Sinaisky takes the podium this week for four concerts with the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall, the first of which was Thursday night. The well-designed program, not blockbusters but two big works by Brahms and Ravel, created a study in contrasts between the two. Written a short generation apart, the Brahms Double Concerto for violin and cello from 1887 and the complete ballet score of Ravel’s “Daphis and Chloe” from between 1910 and 1912 are alike only in their use of a big orchestra and their vitality and musical imagination.

Sinaisky and the orchestra were aided in the concerto by Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud and German cellist Daniel Mueller-Schott, two of today’s fine young artists who recently performed the concerto in Bonn, Germany. It seemed obvious Thursday that the two soloists had performed together before. Their ease of communication and similarity of style, their exact togetherness enhanced the impression, as Paul Schiavo suggests in the notes, that Brahms wrote this concerto as though for one stringed instrument with a greatly extended range.

Their and Sinaisky’s interpretation of the concerto was a robust one, brimming with energy and big tone, but there was sensitivity here as well. The view often verged on an overforceful approach, but Sinaisky never quite let it get there, never sacrificed tone for urgency, climaxes for the sake of being loud. The soloists both play gorgeous 18th century instruments, Kraggerud a Guernari del Gesu from 1744, Mueller-Schott a Mateo Goffriller from 1727, and both used them again and again to draw sound of glorious tone quality and depth. The orchestra responded to Sinaisky’s demands with a fine depth of tone also.

I would have liked more gentleness in the slow movement, more contrast with the outer ones. It would have shown the juxtaposed movements in more relief; but Brahms’ big works are sturdy ones and this could take the approach used and sound terrific.

The Ravel was a tour de force for the orchestra as well as for Sinaisky. It’s near 55 minutes without a break, virtually every instrument has one or more prominent solos, and the whole requires tip-of-the-toes attention and timing. Sinaisky, a meticulous conductor with a clear beat and expressive finetuning gestures, was indeed in that position more than once.
Composed by Ravel on commission from Diaghilev for a new ballet, the score when heard in full seems to have little relation to the story. Briefly, peasant girl and boy grow up together in idyllic countryside, fall in love, both go through various vicissitudes and are separately abducted, finally getting home and living happily together ever after.

Ravel‘s score is far bigger than this—a grand sweep of rural beauty, mostly, to my ears, around water and weather.
There are light flowing water with ripples, little waterfalls, light dancing on slow moving water, swirls and eddies, ebbs and flows, swift currents, crashing, roaring, dangerous rapids (this must be the abduction scene). All of this came to mind in Sinaisky’s interpretation. It was vivid and transparent, in which every instrumental role could be heard as an integral part of the whole.

The orchestra members deserve huge kudos for a fine performance, responding to Sinaisky’s every gesture like a Rolls Royce engine. While all the soloists did well, mention should be made of principal clarinetist Christopher Sereque, who played splendidly as always despite the sudden death of his wife last weekend. It was said, he felt she would have wanted him to.

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