Prokofiev’s 3rd Symphony headlines an almost all Russian program at SSO

Pablo Heras-Casado

By R.M. Campbell

For his Seattle Symphony Orchestra debut Thursday night at Benaroya Hall, Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado conceived a predominantly Russian program. The one exception was Liszt’s “Mephisto” Waltz, No. 1: absolutely nothing from Heras-Casado’s native land or to suggest his Spanish origin.

However, one should not cavil. Instead we got a riveting account of Prokofiev’s Third Symphony. The piece is not done so much, especially compared with the composer’s First Symphony. Derived in part of his problematic opera, “The Fiery Angel,” the symphony takes what Prokofiev thought was the most salvageable musical ideas. The opera is difficult to absorb, awkward on stage and can be lurid at times. But much of the music is striking: Little wonder Prokofiev didn’t want to let it gather dust in some basement archives awaiting discovery.

What the symphony possesses, and Heras-Casado’s reading revealed, was power, galvanic power, that throws you into your seat. Yet, there is something distilled about the music, and in the case of Thursday night’s performance, the music-making. The score is pure Prokofiev in its strength, energy and sense of concentration. Heras-Casado conveyed all that, with the help of the Seattle Symphony musicians at their very best.

The conductor did not shy away from the strident aspects of Prokofiev’s music, or its hysteria. Rather he sought those elements out and made sense of them. Nothing seemed for effect only. This was music that vibrant in its drama. The fortissimos had a point as did that pianissimos, although there was less of the latter. At times there was almost fearsome noise but it was controlled and coherent.

Heras-Casado opened with Liszt. There are many who disdain the composer’s orchestral “Mephisto” Waltz, No. 1, preferring his piano versions, especially No. 1. Even accepting that judgment does not render irrelevant what the conductor achieved Thursday night. It had some of the madness of the piano version, its swinging temperament and rhythmic impulse.

The concert ended with Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. This is a fearsome work that everybody plays. Stephen Hough, the British pianist, not only plays the first with considerable regularity but has recorded all four. Not many pianists can put that on their resume. Despite his awesome virtuosity, his performance was a disappointment. It was simply too fast. Little was shaped. Poetry was in short supply, lyricism practically nil. Even the famous octaves passages were played so fast, they ended up smudged. Hough appeared totally disconnected from the piece, delivering the notes but little behind them. Heras-Casado was mostly considerate as a partner.

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