Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake Op. 20 (excerpts)
Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganiini Op.43
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade Op.35
Sara Davis Buechner (piano)
Conducted by Alexander Prior
Friday June 14, 2019
The approach of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Conductor Alexander Prior to Russian music has by now become pretty clear. He does not subscribe to an overtly Romantic view of composers like Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, but instead looks for those elements in the music that the largely Romantic interpretations of conductors in the West have hidden.
This is, in part, a result of his St. Petersburg Conservatory training, with its residue of the more vital precision of such conductors as Mravinsky and Kondrashin. It has also meant that he has sought a more Russian style of brass playing – more open and brash – to this kind of music, one which really suits it, and the brass players have responded.
For someone like me, who usually finds, for example, Swan Lake a little too much to take, his style demands a reassessment of the music. So it was in the last of this season’s ESO Friday Master’s series concerts at the Winspear, on June 14, which featured his own selection from Swan Lake. As always, he elicited clear textures from the ESO – it is one of the great virtues of his conducting – and he didn’t let the music linger about, as in the Dance of the Little Swans (Act II, No.13, Part 4).
The kitsch elements of the Act I No. 5 Pas de deux finale were played for all their worth – Tchaikovsky letting his hair down – which completely dispelled any jaded view of the ballet. The seventh Dance of the Swans sounded almost like Dvořák, music for English gentlemen riders, their gallop getting more and more stately.
The Act IV Entr’act led into a very deliberate build-up, the brass and percussion highlighted in the Act IV Scene – indeed, the prominence of the percussion throughout the concert was emphasized by placing them rear centre on the stage. There was an epic swagger to the Act IV finale that followed on, very big and bold and brassy, almost raucous from the cymbals – this is indeed how the Russian State Symphony Orchestra play it, not afraid of being slightly over-the-top, as if presenting some Soviet-style epic.
This terrifically exciting ending to a performance that suggested a foretaste of modernism in the music, brought prolonged cheers from the audience, especially for the brass – perhaps the longest ovation I have yet heard for the ESO, and it was well deserved. And how appropriate that the concert should have started with Lidia Khaner playing that famous opening oboe phase, indeed her swan song with the ESO, as she is retiring for other activities at the end of this season.
Sara Davis Buechner was the soloist in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. She is a flamboyant player, with flamboyant playing, attacking both the music and the Steinway, and she can produce a really big and emphatic sound. One’s reaction to her interpretation probably depends on how much one enjoys a performance where the pianist shows the magnificence of the pianistic arts rather than the mysteries of the music.
There’s lots to be said for such virtuosity, especially in a showcase piece like the Rachmaninov. The opening was slightly mawkish, steel-fingered, just right for a colourful approach. Much was fast and furious (with one stumble along the way that in no way interfered with the flow), with, for example, the Dies Irae really hammered out. The orchestra played to match (a wonderful kind of zombie tone from orchestra leader Robert Uchida in the solo just before the return of the Dies Irae).
Where Davis Buechner’s performance was less effective was when the music was more introspective – there was nothing delicate, for example, in the lovely Variation 18. Earlier, in those passages that suggest more of the mystical side of Rachmaninov, there was plenty of rippling colour, but little mystery (in contrast to the orchestral playing). Why that should be is not clear – she is certainly capable of playing with sensitivity (as she shows in her recordings of, for example, the music of Stephen Chapman, or the Mozart on her website). It is as if the demands of her more virtuosic, massive style (which requires precision, an element of rigidity) make it difficult for her to switch to a loosening of the strict tempi, a freeing up of the phrasing, to allow that delicate touch to appear. If she could find that touch in such music, the combination with the strength of the virtuosity would be formidable.
Audiences, of course, love such virtuosity, especially when combined with a little stage flamboyance, and her reception was a reminder of how much she is appreciated in Edmonton, where she is a frequent performer.
The concert ended with another war-horse, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Right from the beginning, Prior instilled rethinking into such a familiar piece: the opening was very slow (apart from one short-lived accelerando), creating a sense of drama, an intensity, an anticipation that really worked. Gradually that pent-up energy started to be released, in a big orchestral sound. In the second movement there was notable horn playing from the two principle horn players, as well as some fine massed violin sound in what is in its own way a showpiece for orchestra. Robert Uchida contributed with a very poignant violin solo in the final movement, where there was again a tension and drive. The whole thing almost persuaded me that the main theme doesn’t recur too many times, and that there isn’t enough variety in the tone of the four movements, but not quite: but it did mean it was a performance that this critic sat through with pleasure, rather than with mere fortitude at having to hear it yet again.
All in all, a powerful way to end the season.