And that’s what I heard yesterday from John Storgårds and the St. Louis Symphony in their dramatic and electrifying reading of Schumann’s “Symphony No. 4”. From the majestic introduction to the fiery finale, this was a Schumann Fourth that just crackled with energy and theatricality.
The Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, Mr. Storgårds is a big man with an expansive but precise style at the podium. This does not, however, appear to be the self-conscious theatricality of (say) a Stokowski but rather the result of a passionate commitment to and intense concentration on this music itself.
This serves him well in both of the other works on this weekend’s program, the Brahms “Piano Concerto No. 2” and Webern’s typically kaleidoscopic orchestration of the great six-part fugue (the Ricercata) from Bach’s “Musical Offering”.
There’s an interesting story behind that fugue. Bach wrote it on, essentially, a dare from Frederick the Great of Prussia. At a meeting in 1747, the king presented Bach with a long and highly chromatic theme (supposedly his own, although he may have lifted it from Handel) and challenged him to use it as the subject for a three-voice fugue. A skilled improviser, Bach did so on the spot, at which point the king, in what might have been an attempt to teach this wise guy a lesson, upped the ante to a six-voice fugue. Two months later Bach replied with his “Musical Offering”—two ricercars, ten canons, and (for good measure) a sonata all based on that theme. Game, set, and match.
The king’s reaction has been lost to posterity.
Anton Webern’s orchestration from nearly two centuries later raised the ante even further by making this mid-18th century piece sound entirely new. An advocate of “Klangfarbenmelodie”—the practice of breaking a melodic line up and distributing it to individual instruments a few notes at a time—Webern shattered and re-assigned the individual voices in ways that sound the way a kaleidoscope looks.
The result can be disorienting but makes for fascinating listening. The rapid shifts in instrumental color are nearly hallucinatory at times and must pose a stiff challenge to the players. There’s no place to hide here; every note must be perfect and every entrance precise. Friday night’s performance was stunning in its precision and a credit to all concerned.
Brahms’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” poses substantial difficulties of its own, at least for the soloist. A pianist of no mean skill, Brahms wrote the piece for himself, and even he acknowledged its technical difficulty when he referred to it (somewhat jokingly) as “the long terror”. It’s not the sort of piece a pianist takes on lightly.
If you’re a regular listener to Public Radio International’s “Symphonycast”, you know that Yefim Bronfman unquestionably has the chops for this music. His performance with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic (still available as a podcast for a limited time at the Symphonycast web site is nothing if not impressive. His performance Friday night was no less spectacular. He handled the most demanding passages with ease, but the reading of the concerto overall felt less compelling than I had hoped. The excitement of the Schumann wasn’t there for me, although the Andante third movement was truly lovely.
I don’t want to make too much of that, though. This is, after all, a matter of taste and it might sound entirely different to you. The orchestral playing was, without a doubt, of its usual high caliber, with an especially beautiful cello and oboe duet from Daniel Lee and Peter Bowman in the third movement. And there’s no question that Mr. Bronfman fully deserved his standing ovation.
The concert repeats tonight (Saturday, November 3) at 8 PM and will be simulcast on 90.7 KWMU. If you can’t make it to Powell, don’t miss the broadcast.
Next on the symphony calendar is a “Hip Hop Symphony” Family concert that combines hip-hop choreography by COCA's Redd Williams with some concert standards on Sunday, November 4th, at 3 PM. The next regular season concert combines Mozart’s “Requiem” with Schoenberg’s “Freude auf Erden” (“Peace on Earth”) and Haydn’s D major “Cello Concerto”. Jun Märkl conducts with Daniel Lee as the soloist in the Haydn. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3, November 9th through 11th. For more information: stlsymphony.org.