San Francisco Symphony/Tilson Thomas in New York

Sibelius
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105
Strauss
Vier letzte lieder
Barber
Andromache’s Farewell, Op.39
Shostakovich
Symphony No.9 in E flat, Op.70

Deborah Voigt (soprano)

San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas


Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 12 March, 2008
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Michael Tilson ThomasMichael Tilson Thomas has a well-deserved reputation as one of today’s most individualistic and, in some ways, unpredictable high-profile maestros. Many listeners forget that he is also a fine orchestral trainer as well.

Tilson Thomas opened the evening’s program, which might have been titled “Three Farewells and a Pie in the Face”. with a disconcerting though beautifully played performance of Sibelius’s penultimate orchestral work, his single-movement Seventh Symphony. The adagio sections were delivered with episodic discontinuity, though many of the orchestral colors were remarkably beautiful, such as the almost-shimmering quality from the violas and cellos in the extended string passage from the first section. The Vivacissimo second section was taken at a brisk clip but was lacking in energy and force while the Allegro molto fourth section sprung to life with vivacity and tunefulness with contrastingly accented and soft-edged articulation from the winds and brass. Too often, conductors figuratively file the rough musical edges off the final section; Tilson Thomas deployed phrasing, attacks and balances that allowed details to shine through while maintaining transparency and culminated in a coda that was assertive, rough-hewn, and very satisfying.

Deborah Voigt. ©Angel Music / Joanne SavioDeborah Voigt – whose voice seems to have taken on a lighter but more focused sound — brought to Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” rather more unrestrained drama and emotion in both her interpretive approach and physical presence than one normally encounters in this song-cycle; both Voigt and Tilson Thomas elicited more than a little unexpected angst along with the retrospective serenity, particularly in the opening two settings, ‘Frühling’ and ‘September’. ‘Beim Schlafengehn’ began with uncharacteristic energy; there was no lugubriousness or lingering in the first half of the song, and with the entrance of the solo violin, the rest of the setting gently slowed as if into a dream. The final one, ‘Im Abendrot’, was given an unusual sense of majesty at the outset, with the protagonist almost seeming to vanish into nothingness as a motif from Strauss’s much-earlier Tod und Verklärung makes first a tentative then more assertive appearances. Both Tilson Thomas and Voigt did some fearless — and ultimately satisfying — risk-taking with this final monument of Romantic orchestral lied.

Samuel Barber (1910-81)Samuel Barber wrote “Andromache’s Farewell” – based on a scene from the immediate aftermath of the sacking of Troy in which the widow of Hector, Prince of Troy, says goodbye to her infant son who is to be executed by the Greeks – as a stand-alone scena for soprano and orchestra. The powerful and dissonant opening chords were delivered with a wallop, Voigt delivering the soliloquy with electrifying power, not only in her enormous vocal range but also through flawless diction that crackled alternately with fury, grief and horror.

In 1945 the Soviet powers-that-be were expecting a monumental Ninth Symphony from Shostakovich to celebrate the victory over fascism and the glories of Stalin — complete with soloists, choirs, and perhaps even some heavy artillery. To say that they were enormously chagrined when the composer delivered his darkly humorous equivalent of a squirt of seltzer water in the face would be an understatement. Tilson Thomas has a genuine affinity for Shostakovich — his visceral, no-holds-barred performance of the Eleventh Symphony a few years ago reveled in the work’s explicit anguish, sorrow and rage.

MTT’s way with the Ninth was no less provocative and compelling, and while the San Francisco Symphony strings sound in no way like those of the great Russian orchestras of the past or present, they utilized a variety of color and articulation to particularly strong effect, especially the use of contrasting accented and soft-edged, near-legato articulation in the opening Allegro and closing Allegretto. They sounded almost too pretty in the Moderato second movement, but still provided satisfying contrast with the melodious Russian ‘harmoniemusik’ from the orchestra’s superb woodwinds, the result sounding almost like something from one of Prokofiev’s ballets than Shostakovich. The third movement Presto is a funhouse mirror of a symphonic scherzo, showcasing the orchestra’s rock-solid precision in rapid ensemble passages without sacrificing the movement’s character, with dance-like melodies played with a snarl and a wink. The Mussorgskian Largo alternates ominous declamations from the lower brass followed by slow and expressive cantabile melodies from a bassoon over sustained pianissimo string chords. The Allegretto finale, which can sound brusque, was played with sizzling, contained energy (with brass particularly reined in) — until the final statement of the main theme, played at a faster tempo as the piece rushes head-on to the final, nose-thumbing measures. It’s rare to hear the Ninth played with this balance of defiance and menace.

After Tilson Thomas jokingly announcing that the encore would be the Adagio from Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, the orchestra played the delightful (and too-rarely-heard) ‘Marche miniature’ from Tchaikovsky’s Suite No.1, this time with a smile that was merry instead of mordant.

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