Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Ruslan Confronts the Head
by Nicolai Ge (1831-1894)

Glinka: Russlan and Ludmilla: Overture
Chausson: Poème for Violin
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G
Beethoven: Symphony No.5

Laura Veeze  (violin)
Jeanne Amièle  (piano)

Conducted by Alexander Prior

May 27, 2018


What a way for the The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra to close this season’s series of Sunday afternoon concerts at the Winspear on May 27! For a packed and enthusiastic audience were given one of the fastest and most exciting performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 that I have heard, experienced some superb violin playing in Chausson’s well-known Poème, and had Ravel’s most-loved piano concerto and Glinka’s best-known orchestral piece to add to the mix .

The question of Beethoven’s tempi is a thorny one, and the subject of much academic debate. Beethoven’s own metronome markings are, in the first eight symphonies, really pretty fast. The tradition has been to Romanticize these symphonies, by assuming that Beethoven got his metronome marking wrong (it was a relatively new piece of technology, and anyway Beethoven was deaf for the later symphonies). This seemed to be confirmed by the way Beethoven’s music seemed to respond to a Romantic hue when taken slower.

Two great conductors, father Eric Kleiber in the 1950s and son Carlos Kleiber in 1975, showed in their recordings how exciting this symphony could be if taken faster. However, it was the movement for authentic instruments – playing Beethoven with the size of forces and the type of instruments that Beethoven would have written for – that showed that perhaps Beethoven’s metronome markings were indeed correct, for the thinner sounds de-Romanticized the works, and the faster tempi made sense.

Some mainstream conductors, such as Paavo Järvi, have shown that such tempi can work with a modern larger-scale orchestra. Alexander Prior has already indicated that, while he is perfectly capable of eliciting Romantic pace and colour where appropriate, he dislikes the Romanticizing of works that might require a less sentimental approach – his Tchaikovsky is an obvious example.

Here he started the three most famous notes in music that open Beethoven’s fifth at a break-neck speed – too fast perhaps, as that phrase both got lost and some its nobility was hidden, in part because the marked pause was very short indeed. Indeed, one feared that the orchestra might not be able to maintain such a speed (and the horns at a couple of points did indeed have problems). Where more leisured readings allow that rather more mysterious passage leading up to the oboe’s adagio solo to breathe, to open up, Prior drove the music on, creating considerable tension. Indeed, he avoided the usually tendency to dwell at greater length on the quite large number of pauses marked in the score, and as the strings and the brass in particular responded to his onward rush, it became clear how this interpretation of the symphony was shaping.

For this was placing the music firmly in its time – not in the more Gothic reaches of mid-18th Century Romanticism, but in the much less sentimental, and pithier start of the century, when the European continent was plunged into the throes of the Napoleonic Wars (and Beethoven had changing views of Napoleon, initially hero-worshipping him). Thus the faster tempi for the more martial march in the second movement seemed just right, and the whole thing led up to a really exciting, vivid, and energetic finale – a triumphant symphony that in this interpretation did seem to reflect something of war at its most gripping, of continental strategies and political movements at their most commanding. Glory, rather than grandeur, that made sense of Beethoven’s place and concerns in 1804 to 1808, when he completed the symphony.

The concert had opened, after an informative (and entertaining) introduction from the conductor (though he might consider moderating some of his riskier ad-libs), with Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla overture, again fast and furious at the opening, with crisp playing and idiomatic phrasing from the orchestra, a nice light touch at the second theme, and overall a performance full of fun and zest.

Chausson’s Poème for violin and orchestra is, of course, very different in feel from either of these two works. It was written for the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, and if you have ever heard past the crackle of the very early 78 rpm recordings that Ysaÿe made – or indeed, Ysaÿe‘s own violin music – you can understand how the more mournful and darker elements of Chausson’s music, and the rhapsodic feel, must have exactly suited the Belgian master.

Here at the Winspear the soloist was something of a revelation. While the Dutch-Canadian violinist Laura Veeze is now a familiar figure in the first violin section of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (she came to Edmonton with her husband, the ESO’s concertmaster Robert Uchida), and I had heard her take part in chamber music (notably in Elgar’s Piano Quintet last November), I had not heard her in a solo role before. Given this performance, one wondered why not.

Chausson’s work really is rhapsodic, for the violin solo part really seems to take very little notice of the orchestra, who indeed spend most of their time following or answering the solo line (for those unfamiliar with the work, there’s a similar effect in Vaughan Williams’ well-known Lark Ascending). This puts a lot of emphasis on the tone and colour of the solo line, and it’s a difficult piece to shape, as any shape comes from how the soloist unravels that rhapsody, rather than from anything more concrete.

Veese has the right kind of mellow, consistent tone, quite big and round when required, needed for music like this. It’s combined with the kind of delicacy that is needed here, especially in the very high writing near the end. She did indeed shape the Poème convincingly – she’s certainly not (at least on this evidence) a showy player, but rather a thoughtful one, and one couldn’t help but feel that Ysaÿe himself would have enjoyed this performance. I do hope the ESO plucks her out of the first violins more often.

The soloist in Ravel’s Piano Concert in G was the young Jeanne Amièle, who who won the Sheen Piano Competition here in Edmonton in 2016 and is now a doctoral student. She brims over with confidence and enthusiasm, clearly loved playing the concerto, and has one of those enviable techniques where the most difficult runs seem effortless. That youth, perhaps, showed in lack of subtlety and variation in colour in the main, more exposed dominant piano line that Ravel so often uses here – and the second movement could have been a bit more bluesy. But the performance was a reminder of what a remarkable work this piano concerto is, with its tinges of jazz and blue, and music that has magic and yet sends itself up at one and the same time, and it will be interesting to see how Amièle’s depth of interpretation develops.