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Review: An evening of Mendelssohn and Schumann with the Seattle Symphony and Gidon Kremer

16th October, 2017

It’s entirely characteristic of Gidon Kremer to choose a discovery piece rather than a surefire crowd-pleaser for what was a rare appearance in Seattle. Previously, the eminent violinist has appeared on the Benaroya Hall stage with his Kremerata Baltica. This was his first time partnering with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot, and it made for an evening of sensitive, deeply felt music-making.

Kremer has become a leading champion of Schumann’s much-misunderstood – indeed, much-abused – Violin Concerto (his discography includes two very different accounts). The piece has had to contend with casual accusations of manifesting the composer’s deteriorating mental condition – Schumann did make his suicide attempt, followed by his confinement to an asylum, several months after beginning work on the score – and has even been described, on the more lurid end of the spectrum, as embodying a “syphilitic sound”.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the melodramatic circumstances of the score’s rediscovery in the 1930s by the famous Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi (claiming to have communed with the spirits of the composer and her grand-uncle, Joseph Joachim, for whom Schumann had written the piece) have left the Violin Concerto enshrouded in a fog of obscurantist nonsense. The world should be grateful for d’Arányi’s efforts to win attention for the piece, since they were after all the catalysts for its belated première some 80 years after Schumann’s death. Unfortunately, what might be viewed as a clever publicity stunt continues to be reported naively, with the result that the general public’s perception of the concerto as a weird curiosity has been strengthened.

Kremer swept away all that baggage with a committed performance which involved the kind of spiritual communing a music lover should be concerned with: his phrasing and micro-adjustments of tempo were thoughtful, creating little pockets of suspense by virtue of their unpredictability, without seeming mannered or self-indulgent. With sympathetic support from Morlot, the symphonic intensity of the opening movement made a purposeful contrast with the fragile intimacy of the second. To the latter, Kremer brought a prayerful sense of focus, of almost reaching a place where the distractions of the world have melted away, as we encounter in late Beethoven. Almost: what makes this music so heart-rending is the pain that so gently, so fragilely, infiltrates its probing lyricism.

Kremer has stated that what he particularly values in the Schumann is its “sincerity”, and that is precisely what he conveyed. The biggest challenge comes, then, with the final movement, which the violinist has decided should be taken as the composer indicated (his paradoxical indication is “lebhaft, doch nicht schnell”). This translated into an alternately stately and halting, rather heavy polonaise.

Not all of it worked. Kremer’s own tendency towards refined understatement plus the unidiomatic nature of Schumann’s violin writing made it hard simply to hear the soloist in passages. In some ways, the work becomes a kind of anti-concerto, by no means suppressing virtuosity, but disguising it. The players contributed some wonderful moments of their own, most notably principal cellist Efe Baltacıgil. As an encore, Kremer offered another unusual choice: a breathtakingly spare, anguished account of Mieczysław Weinberg’s Cello Prelude no. 5 (beautifully arranged to suit his instrument).

This was my first chance to hear the SSO’s music director back in action this season (after a leg injury forced him to cancel two opening programmes). Morlot framed the concerto with music by Schumann’s friend Felix Mendelssohn, starting with yet another rarity: the String Symphony no. 10 in B minor, a product composed by the prodigy at 14. The sole focus on the strings was not entirely forgiving – the ensemble sagged in a few moments – but it was a lovely performance enhanced by attention to dynamics and shifting tonal weights, with an incandescently flurrying coda.

Against the comparatively subdued palette of the String Symphony, Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 4 sounded like a Technicolor outburst – effected not by orchestral extravagance but by Mendelssohn’s imaginative use of standard means. Morlot understands this Mendelssohnian economy and brought out a variety of ingratiating details, such as Emil Khudyev’s radiant clarinet or the change of step in the walking-bass of the Andante con moto, which was taken at a very deliberate pace. Ensemble attack was well-judged in the sunny outburst of the opening and its reprise, and flutist Demarre McGill lent the finale’s perky saltarello dance an airiness reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s youthful Midsummer Night’s Dream music.

 

16 October 2017
Thomas May / bachtrack