Poland, Russia and Finland covered in SSO program

By R.M. Campbell

Arnoldo Cohen, the Brazilian-born pianist who now lives in the United States, has played several times with the Seattle Symphony. He is a pianist who couples technical prowress with keen musical instincts and finely honed lyricism. Unfortunately, he chose for his return SSO engagement Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Piano Concerto, the least convincing orchestra/piano work of the composer. It always seems to be Rachmaninoff about to be what we have come to expect then turns away into a less rewarding corridor. The final movement is an exception in that it is dazzling in its challenges for the soloist, all of which Cohen met. This was thrilling pianism for its sheer bravura — thousands of notes dispatched with alacrity. Sometimes endless virtuosity can be boring but Cohen did not make it so. In addition to his confident technique is his burnished tone, at once big and honeyed and penetrating. He could always be heard without banging, which is astonishing given the size of the orchestra.

The concert began with Witold Lutoslawski’s Fourth Symphony. The work was the last major symphonic effort of the Polish composer, premiering in Los Angeles a year before his in 1994. He was on the podium. He is among the most attractive of the mid-to-late 20th-century Eastern European composers, who manged to write profound music without needless complexity and endless dissonance. The 30-minute work, cast in one movement, is typical of the composer’s style, in its emphasis on a vivid and original use of timbre. Listening to the symphony is similar to being on a voyage of unique sounds, at once unexpected and rich in color. Indeed, that is principal attribute of the work. At times, especially in the middle, the symphony seems to wander from pillar to post with little sense of organic development, at least on first hearing. Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard is committed to this symphony and gave an eloquent account of it, along with the very alert SSO musicians.

Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony ended the concert. This is a piece to which Dausgaard also has a strong commitment: he had the score memorized. Like Rachmaninoff, Sibelius was not entirely satisfied with the symphony, withholding it after its premiere in 1915. A second version was performed the following year, also to Sibelius’ dissatisfaction. He put it aside, only to look at the score a couple of years later. Much of the piece was reworked, reinvented and finally, in 1919, another premiere was offered in Helsinki. That is the version performed Thursday night at Benaroya Hall.

There is much to admire in the piece — its sweeping lines, grand climaxes, deeply felt lyricism. There is much that is original thematically and in the way Sibelius develops it. Dausgaard has a deep respect for Sibelius and this piece. He conducted everything Thursday with conviction, particularly so with the Sibelius. The result was telling in its expansiveness and effectiveness. Dausgaard got the symphony to play with refinement coupled with spirit. The conductor has a natural authority and he exercised it in every measure. He is not a tyrant but a man who collaborates with his musicians. This was a very good reading of a sometimes overlooked symphony.

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