The Juilliard Orchestra/Larry Rachleff – Central Park in the Dark & Shostakovich 5 – Matthew Sinno plays Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher

Central Park in the Dark
Der Schwanendreher
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Matthew Sinno (viola)

The Juilliard Orchestra
Larry Rachleff

Reviewed by: Fred Kirshnit

Reviewed: 11 December, 2014
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Larry RachleffNo one really knows what precipitated the parade of viola jokes that has haunted professional players of the instrument for generations. Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) wrote three major pieces featuring his own instrument with orchestra: Kammermusik No.5 (Opus 36/4), Konzertmusik (Opus 48), and Der Schwanendreher (from 1935). There is also Trauermusik – completed in just six hours for string orchestra with viola in response to the death of King George V in 1936 and which at the request of the BBC replaced the scheduled UK premiere and broadcast of Der Schwanendreher (The Swan Turner), the very Concerto performed here by the Juilliard Orchestra.

This Medieval German folksong-inspired Concerto refers to an antediluvian organ grinder whose repertoire is populated by songs of the vulgate. The composer emphasizes the sonority of the solo instrument by including neither violins nor violas in the orchestra. This was enhanced expertly by Matthew Sinno, whose woody tone was rich and bountiful. He weaved an excellent tapestry, presenting an entirely different sound for the middle movement’s fugato section and delivering an almost note-perfect performance.

It is interesting to consider whether Charles Ives or the poet Wallace Stevens was the greatest creative artist to work for the insurance industry of Hartford, but there is little debate that he is one of the most significant of American composers. The only wrinkle is that although his intellectual standing is secure, virtually no concertgoer is exposed to that much of his music. It was therefore quite refreshing to hear Central Park in the Dark immediately after I had just traversed the place at night to get to Alice Tully Hall. Apparently much has changed at Frederick Law Olmsted’s amazing centerpiece of Manhattan life. Ives’s park is a place filled with natural beauty of sound and a touch of ragtime for seasoning. There is, of course, the ‘four corners’ approach to music – several differing snatches of melody occurring at the same time – but there is little or no sense of danger. As young musicians are wont to do, the Juilliard folks played the stuffing out of this piece.

The febrile Fifth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich should have been the highlight. Although extremely well enunciated, there was something missing. Larry Rachleff treated the first two movements as if they were made of thin, precious glass, leading his forces in accurate but extremely careful playing. Concertmaster Julia Choi provided the only contrast, her solo passages, especially in their pauses, delightfully idiosyncratic.

Mstislav Rostropovich stated that whenever he conducted the third-movement Largo he saw before him the tormented face of the composer. It was at this point in the Juilliard rendition that the musicians took their collective playing to another emotional level and were able to maintain this intensity through to the Symphony’s conclusion. Of special note in the finale were the powerful intonations of tuba-player Péter Blága and the precise and threatening contributions of the percussion section. All’s well that ends well; the rather gingerly beginning of this reading was totally subsumed by such a stirring finish.

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