Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin – Jacob’s Awakening & Appalachian Spring – Yefim Bronfman plays Beethoven [live webcast]

Jacob’s Awakening
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Appalachian Spring [complete orchestral version]

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 18 May, 2014
Venue: Orchestra Hall, Detroit, Michigan

Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Photograph: © Matthew H. Starling Sometimes clashes force one to make choices; but the seemingly impossible can be achieved. No way was I going to miss Antonio Pappano conducting Verdi’s Requiem on this particular afternoon, but neither did I want to forgo another Detroit relay; after all, it included Appalachian Spring. But timings seemed not to reconcile, and for all that the Detroit matinee was arriving in London at 8 o’clock in the evening (Pappano was beginning at 5), there is the matter of supper afterwards (with a nice lady-friend) and getting back. Well, I did make it home, to find the Detroiters halfway through the Copland – but there is a rewind facility, so I was able to watch the whole concert.

So, this nearly-live webcast opened with Leonard Slatkin introducing Krzysztof Penderecki’s Jacob’s Awakening (1974) and talking about how the Polish composer (80 last year) took music forward during his avant-garde years. That’s something Penderecki has now reneged upon; his recent music (what I have heard of it) can be grey and character-less. Not so the 8-minute Jacob’s Awakening, which is immediately compelling in its eerie opening, suspenseful, and vividly growing to its ‘awakening’ with numerous colour chords. The scoring includes 12 ocarinas (Ligeti later used five of them in his Violin Concerto) to extend the range of sound, and this performance was carefully calibrated to give a different sort of expressivity, and one no less valid than anything else, a restlessness coming to full life crowned by stirring cacophony. I wonder if Slatkin has conducted, or will do so one day, what is now Penderecki’s Symphony No.1 (it was without a number at its LSO composer-conducted premiere), an amazing piece!

Yefim Bronfman. Photograph: Dario Acosta Yefim Bronfman has a particular way with Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, mixing clarity and severity to very satisfying results. No tricks, just good and focussed music-making, the sort that persuasively says ‘this is how it goes’, the pianist lucid, dynamic, touch-sensitive and drawing the listener in. The first-movement cadenza (Beethoven’s) remained integral to the whole, the slow movement was perfectly paced to reveal its song and the finale enjoyed shapely poise and clarity. Throughout, Slatkin and the DSO were attentive partners. As an encore, Bronfman gave a slow-burn, smooth and soothing Scarlatti Sonata (I have a 1-in-555 chance of identifying it!), sounding ideal on a piano (and rather different to the scorching, headlong finale of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.7 that was Bronfman’s extra at this point the night before).

Before conducting Appalachian Spring, Slatkin once again addressed the audience with the touching story of an aged Aaron Copland suffering from Alzheimer’s who had lost the power of speech and was communicating through writing until walking to a piano to play the recognisable sequence of notes that underpin this great ballet score, almost as if saying “this is what I am about”. I believe what follows is correct, that Appalachian Spring, as a score for choreographer Martha Graham, was written for 13 instruments, then turned in Suite form for the same forces, then that truncation was orchestrated, and in the 1950s Eugene Ormandy asked Copland to make the original for orchestra, which included adding back a whole scene. It’s this that Slatkin conducted.

It’s one of the most wondrous and soul-touching pieces in the repertoire (a Copland No.1, along with the very different Connotations). Unbearably poignant at times, as well as exhilarating, tender and evocative, now with some sections extended, as first written, this was a performance that got so inside the music as to leave the listener compelled and devastated in its deep beauty and awe-struck quietness. Whether Spring relates to the season or a source of water, the music is transporting and breathtaking, transcending its inspiration to somewhere beyond its title. Copland introduces a Shaker Melody (‘The Gift to be Simple’), here ominously interrupted by a storm, the most torrential music in the score, disrupting pastoral delights, and omitted from the Suite. Good news that Slatkin and the DSO are recording Copland complete for Naxos, for this particular outing sent the right sort of shiver down the body, the communication of such infinite depth of feeling through music, and made so ‘complete’ here.

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