Originally composed in 1977 and revised several times since, Pärt's Fratres exists in 15 different orchestrations, the most popular of which – for claves, bass drum and strings – opened the concert. The piece unfolds in a series of nine iterations of a chant-like theme, rising in a slow crescendo, peaking at the seventh section, and then dying away to the drone maintained by the basses throughout.
Although supposedly based on a simple mathematical formula, the music suggested (to me, anyway) the Canonical prayer hours of a medieval monastery. Your mileage may vary, of course, but there's no denying that the overall effect is an uplifting and welcome cleansing of the aural detritus of the modern world. Mr. Slatkin conducted this deceptively simple-sounding music with great precision and sympathy.
At the other end of the musical spectrum from the contemplative Fratres is Rachmaninov's flashy Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini from 1934. The Russian expatriate was one of the previous century's great virtuoso pianists and the Rhapsody served him well as he toured America and Europe. The piece is a sort of mini-concerto, consisting of 24 variations on (appropriately) the twenty-fourth and last of Niccolò Paganini's Caprices for solo violin – a tune that has proved irresistible for composers from Liszt to Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Displaying formidable technique, a deep understanding of Russian romantic style and no small measure of what the production team on the old Avengers TV series called "M. appeal", Olga Kern is perhaps the ideal performer for the Rhapsody, with its irresistible mix of keyboard pyrotechnics and unabashed sentimentality, particularly in the famous 18th variation. She and Mr. Slatkin made the slow variations dreamy and took the fast ones at such a breakneck pace that the entire structure seemed ready collapse at times. It never did, of course, so the overall effect was rather like watching the Flying Wallendas' seven-person pyramid. It was, in short, breathtaking – so much so that the audience brought Ms. Kern back for a short bravura encore.
The evening concluded with Prokofiev's 1944 Symphony No. 5. Composed at the artists' colony of Ivanovo east of Moscow just as the war with Germany was turning in Russia's favor, the symphony was described by Prokofiev as "a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit" and while there is certainly an air of triumph, especially in the majestic opening theme, it has always seemed to me that the war was never far from the composer's mind. You can hear it in (among other places) the militant percussion of the first movement and the anguished climax of the third.
The aura of triumph is also leavened by Prokofiev's characteristic irony. The composer of the Sarcasms for piano always seems to have a raised eyebrow or cynical smile behind his most demonstrative music. In the 5th symphony sarcasm takes various forms, including caustic comments from the brass and percussion and the deliberate interruption of the boisterous Allegro giocoso finale by a short, dissonant passage for string quartet and trumpet.
Conducting without a score (as he had for the entire evening), Mr. Slatkin pulled these disparate elements together into a compelling whole that did full justice to Prokofiev's many moods. The big gestures where huge and the small details perfect. The ensemble sounded wonderful, in short. The 1985 recording Mr. Slatkin and the SLSO did for RCA is still available at arkivmusic.com. I'll confess that I haven't heard it, but if it's anything like Friday's performance, it's worth having.
As with the Rachmaninov, audience response was wildly enthusiastic, obliging Mr. Slatkin to perform an unexpected encore: "Carmen's Hoedown", an exuberantly silly arrangement by Mr. Slatkin's noted father Felix of "Votre toast, je peux vous le render" (a.k.a. "The Toreador Song") from Carmen. It was great fun and, I suppose, the logical conclusion to an evening marked by dramatic contrasts.
Performances of this program continue Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3, November 27 and 28, 2010. Tickets are available at slso.org or by calling 314-534-1700. Next at Powell Hall, music of Albéniz, Falla and Brahms conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos December 3 and 4, after which the regular concert series breaks for a collection of holiday programs.