St Louis Symphony/David Robertson in Carnegie Hall – Debussy’s Printemps & Stravinsky’s The Firebird – Karita Mattila sings Kaija Saariaho

Quatre Instants
The Firebird

Karita Mattila (soprano)

Saint Louis Symphony
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 10 March, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Debussy’s early Printemps – written in 1887 but lost in a fire and reconstructed in 1912 from a piano score – is harmonically more conservative and thickly scored than his other orchestral works. The St Louis Symphony was nearly note-perfect in the first section, though a bit spare on incisive attacks and phrasing, a hair too quiet in the winds, and completely lacking in sweep and passion. The second part fared far better. David Robertson maintained exemplary balances, evoking abundant character and luscious orchestral color that left a strong impression.

Karita Mattila. Photograph: Lauri ErikssonKaija Saariaho’s Quatre Instants is only somewhat effective in evoking the texts and moods of four French poems of Amin Maalouf exploring various aspects of love – ‘Longing’, ‘Torment’, ‘Perfume of the Moment’, and ‘Echoes’. The Finnish composer’s penchant for Technicolor orchestration does little to help the sung lines take flight, and passages have a heavy, static quality often at odds with the poems, though the more wrenching passages of ‘Torment’ were surprisingly effective. The performance by Karita Mattila, for whom the work was written, would have been more effective had it been a degree or two more subtle. Mattila’s dynamic range and breath control were commanding, but her French diction was often too softly focused.

David Robertson. Photograph: Michael TammaroStravinsky’s The Firebird is one of the great outsize scores of the late-romantic era, more often presented as a symphonic score than as a ballet. While the musical style owes much to Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, it is also easy to hear the influences of Wagner in the work’s form and recurring motifs. In the right hands it is one of the most exciting works in the repertoire, but the present performance of the complete score was unexpectedly boring and banal. The cellos and double basses were rock-solid in the opening section, but the rest of the orchestra’s ensemble and rhythm were a bit of a mess up to ‘Pursuit of the Firebird’, which had plenty of momentum and came across as a stunning, seamless rapid passage tossed between and among the various sections. This was an exception that only made the sections played in slow, sometimes Celibidachian tempos all the more infuriating. ‘Dance of the Firebird’ and ‘Game with the Golden Apples’ had just enough requisite character, but ‘Kastchei’s Infernal Dance’ was marred by some sloppy entrances. On the positive side, one would be hard-pressed to hear the ‘Berceuse’ played as beautifully – showcasing the SLS’s sensational double-reed section – or be so evocative of both old Russia and the Paris of 1910. The brief second Tableau, the ballet’s final scene, was conveyed more with efficiency than grandeur, but I was pleased that Robertson, who had positioned the three off-stage trumpets in the tiers around the audience, included the sustained trumpet notes in the work’s finale that were recently restored following research by Robert Craft.

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