Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Ilyich Rivas
Paul Jacobs (organ)
Winspear Centre, Edmonton
Friday, February 24, 2017
Bach, arranged Mahler: Suite from the Orchestral Works of Johann Sebastian Bach
Poulenc: Concerto for Organ, Timpani, and Strings
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6 ‘Pathétique’
One might have expected the success of Friday’s Edmonton Symphony Orchestra concert at the Winspear to depend on the guest soloist, the popular American Grammy-winning organist, Paul Jacobs, whom we last heard with the ESO back in 2014 (in a rare performance of Alexandre Guilmant’s Organ Concerto).
Fine indeed was Jacobs’ return to the Winspear, but the outstanding contribution came from a young Venezuelan-American conductor making his debut with the ESO. Ilyich Rivas is only 23, and already he has conducted many of the major European orchestras, as well as opera at Glyndebourne and Opera North. The Guardian once said of him: “He is strikingly, almost disconcertingly good…we need to keep an eye on him”, and judging by Friday’s concert, one can only agree.
His style is the antithesis of the flamboyant arm-waving and body swaying we have sometimes come to expect from young visiting conductors. His body movements are minimal, economical, and the expression is notably in the hands, batonless in the Mahler arrangements of Bach that opened the concert.
Those Mahler arrangements – of music from Bach’s orchestral suites in B minor and D (BWV 1067 and 1068) – were written for a Carnegie Hall concert in 1909, with the New York Philharmonic Society (of which Mahler was then the conductor). Mahler himself conducted from a Steinway doctored to sound like a harpsichord at that premiere, and the original concert was the start of a series where Mahler made an historical survey of classical music, starting with Bach.
The arrangements (which include the well-known Air in D Major), for string orchestra, harpsichord, wind, brass, and timpani, might be described as discretely Edwardian, rather than a wholesale rewriting for a late-Romantic orchestra. The exception is the writing for the organ, which Mahler uses as a second bass in the first two movements: the Winspear’s Davis organ, in the capable hands of Jeremy Spurgeon, gently shook the audience seats like some senatorial comment on the popular uprising of the strings.
This was the first time the ESO had played the work, and it led very naturally into Poulenc’s magnificent Concerto for Organ, Timpani, and Strings. Here Jacobs – playing from memory – made the Davis sound like one of those powerhouse French last 19th-century organs. The concerto is a marvellously compact work of enormous energy and a wide range of emotions, and if this performance did not quite capture as much joyful exuberance as some I have heard, the long opening build-up was very effective, and Jacob made the last movement sound really martial. Tempi were almost ideal, and a word of praise, too, for an ESO instrumentalist who often gets overlooked, timpanist Barry Nemish. Jacob followed this stirring performance with an equally rousing Bach encore, letting the Davis’ organ trumpets ring through the auditorium.
What had been noticeable in both the Bach/Mahler and the Poulenc was the fine sound Rivas got from the strings, with a range of colours and idiomatic phasing. That came to full fruition in an impressive performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the ‘Pathétique’, full of tension and energy. I don’t think I have heard the orchestra play quite so well – gorgeous woodwind (beautifully phrased clarinet playing), and the strings reaching a new level. Perhaps it was a little too good, as the brass (as one had suspected before) could not quite emulate the crispness and the accuracy of the rest of the orchestra.
This was also the first time I have heard this orchestra play a genuine pp, in the very opening of the symphony (so quiet they were almost drowned out by audience coughing near me). That first movement was interpretively interesting, too, as Rivas unfolded it rather as if it were a Sibelius first movement, ideas organically emerging, the build-up of tension constantly promising release. But, of course, it’s not Sibelius, and that expectation of release is not fulfilled – instead there is the return of that gorgeous big tune.
Perhaps that unreleased tension was appropriate, too, as the strength of this performance was in its energy, especially in the last movement, as it leads to the enigmatic ending. Indeed, it died away so effectively at the end that the audience appeared either bewildered that the symphony should disappear on such a quiet note, or stunned by what had gone before.
I do hope we see Rivas back on the Winspear podium soon.