Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: McPherson, Beethoven, and Magnard

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Jean-Marie Zeitouni
Behzod Abduraimov (piano)

Winspear Centre, Edmonton
Friday, January 27, 2017

John McPherson: Triune (Grief/Peace/Liberation) (first performance)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 ‘The Emperor’
Albéric Magnard: Symphony No. 4


Beethoven’s famous Piano Concerto No.5, ‘The Emperor’, completed in 1811, is usually seen – and played – as one of the great works that ushered in the age of Romanticism in music. It also, of course, represented the death-knell of the Classical age, as the young Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov reminded us on Friday in the Edmonton Symphony’s wide-ranging Winspear concert. There was a new work by the orchestra’s composer-in-residence, and a French symphony that probably very few in the audience had ever heard of, let alone heard.

For what Abduraimov gave us – entirely supported by conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni – was Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto played as a Classical concerto rather than as a Romantic prototype. In place of the constant shadings of tempi that are the norm in a Romantic reading, here we had the kind of strict adherence to tempi that would have graced an early Mozart concerto. In place of regular shadings of dynamics within a phrase – to bring out the Romantic emotions of the piece – here we had those dynamics maintained over longer sections, with the contrasts coming through a dynamic change to the next longer section – again, as one might in a Classical period work.

The result was fascinating, and a tribute to Abduraimov’s virtuosity. For Beethoven isn’t Mozart, and whereas, in a Romantic reading, it takes great emotional skill to pull off shades of tempi and dynamics and colours in the long piano runs that permeate the concerto, it takes real virtuosity to play them with such pin-point and absolute consistency in a Classical reading like this.

What was gained was a real sense of how this concerto evolved from the music of the preceding decades. There were some unexpected effects, too, such as the very light-hearted feel of the last movement, which emerged with a kind of Viennese classical grace. What was missing was any of the considerable gravitas of the piece, especially with a faster tempo in the slow movement, and, one has to say, some of the deep emotional impact of the concerto.

Those emotions probably more reflect the turbulent personal life Beethoven was experiencing when writing the concerto, rather than any connection with Napoleon. However, even if Beethoven had long become disillusioned with his former hero, one can see why his English publisher gave the nickname Emperor to the piece. Just when Beethoven started writing it, Vienna fell to the French, and the soloist in the first performance, Archduke Rudolf, along with the rest of his Hapsburg family, was essentially a vassal of the French Emperor.

I suspect the Archduke might well have approved of such a reading as Abduraimov’s. It was certainly both interesting and enjoyable, even if I personally prefer my Beethoven to look forward to Romanticism, rather than backwards to Classicism.

It was preceded by another enjoyable performance, the premiere of John McPherson’s Triune (Grief/Peace/Liberation), commissioned by the ESO. McPherson has long been the principal trombone of the orchestra, and has written and arranged works for the ESO in the past. This year, however, he has set aside his trombone to be the orchestra’s composer-in-residence.

Triune is an orchestral exploration of grief (as a human emotion, rather than as a response to a particular event). It’s firmly rooted in tonality, and doesn’t break any new musical ground, but that was never McPherson’s intention. Rather Triune is a finely crafted and effectively structured tone poem that packs a wide emotional range into its eight minutes. Climbing strings at the opening create a sense of a wide, northern, and perhaps grief-laden landscape. The pulse of a rocking figure is joined by percussion, including a clapper, and brass yowls, and turns into an ironic waltz. A melodic, wistful episode, initiated by the flute, becomes darker as lower brass and clarinet take over. Some of the earlier material returns for the end, a rising climax like a hopeful dawn, subsiding again into a quiet ending suggesting reconciliation, or at least contemplative acceptance.

The writing for the orchestra – and especially the extensive brass, as one might expect – was effective, and clearly enjoyed by the brass section. One looks forward to McPherson’s next major work for the ESO, a concerto for two horns and orchestra, that will be heard in the 2017-2018 season.

The symphony was a real rarity, and was here receiving its Alberta premiere. Albéric Magnard started his Symphony No. 4 in 1911, completing it in 1913. It was premiered in May, 1914, just a few months before the composer’s untimely death (at the age of 49) at the hands of the Germans as the First World War started. It is probably his best-known work, and Magnard’s music, especially the four symphonies and some of his fine chamber music, has undergone something of a rediscovery in recent years, though his two operas, both of considerable interest, are still very little known.

Zeitouni, in his introductory talk, suggested the influence of Wagner in the Symphony No.4, and that it is a work that should be in the regular repertoire. In both cases, I think, he is perhaps guilty of a little wishful thinking. Much though Magnard had earlier admired Wagner’s work (and his 1901 opera Guerecoeur is clearly influenced by Tristan), it is difficult to hear any trace of Wagner in this symphony. Instead there is a rather interesting conglomerate of influences. In the swirl of quite complex orchestral layers there is the undoubted model of Richard Strauss, and the end of the slow movement is almost pure Strauss. In some of the more bucolic melodic elements (notably the repeated motto that the flute played during Zeitouni’s introduction) one feels the hand of Magnard’s teacher, Vincent D’Indy. In the great slow massed climaxes, brass joining in, the shadow of Bruckner stalks through the orchestra, just as it does in the driving string figure in the opening movement and in the quiet section that ends it (not for nothing was Magnard called, rather misleadingly, the French Bruckner). Incongruously, one is also reminded of the way Mahler puts together eclectic elements, and those not then associated with ‘serious’ symphonies, such as the hurdy-gurdy section in the ‘Vif’ second movement, perhaps the most striking in the symphony.

None of this is particularly French (apart from the D’Indy influence), and is in contrast to the prevailing contemporary French music of the period, of Debussy, Ravel, and Fauré. The primary French influence is that of a ‘cyclical’ construction, of material and motifs returning as a structural element. Magnard learned this from his participation as a young man in César Franck’s circle (though there is little other Franck influence in his music), and from D’Indy.

Where, then, does it sit? I think the closest parallels might be found in the British late-Romantic, ‘Celtic Revival’ orchestral works of Granville Bantock – an almost exact contemporary of Magnard – and the youthful works of Arnold Bax. There are similar sensibilities, especially in the combination of the earthy and the spiritual, and not dissimilar musical explorations, with the exception of that Bruckner influence.

Whether the symphony is worthy of a regular place in the repertoire is questionable. There is much better music of the period that deserves more regular airing (not the least, Bantock’s orchestral works), and the same could be said of some French symphonies (such as those of Roussel, who, as one commentator has pointed out, rather took up Magnard’s mantle). There is some striking music in it, some lovely ideas, some powerful climaxes, but in the end those parts prove more interesting than the whole. By that end, the lack of a strikingly individual voice, and of an overall tone to the work, tells. I suspect that Magnard’s fourth symphony is one of those ‘Festival’ works: deserving the occasional airing, but no more.

It is, though, a better symphony than we heard at the Winspear. This kind of complex orchestral writing from the twilight of Romanticism is not (yet, at least) the orchestra’s forte, and rarely appears in their programming. The playing wasn’t very idiomatic (and was occasionally a little ragged), and Zeitouni gave neither enough breadth nor orchestral clarity when needed, and didn’t present a convincing overall shape to the symphony. That said, the ESO should be commended for introducing it – and the composer – to the majority of the audience, and it was well worth the hearing. Those interested in following up might like to try any of the three recordings of the cycle of Magnard symphonies available (conducted by Ossonce on Hyperion, Sanderling on BIS, and Plasson on EMI – all are good performances, the Ossonce perhaps the best).

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