Grieg, Bartok and Sibelius

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Grieg, Bartok and Sibelius

Post by Ricordanza » Mon Oct 12, 2015 8:25 pm

My report on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Thursday night concert begins with a brief encounter at a supermarket several years ago. When it was time to pay, I noticed that the cashier’s name tag said “Anitra.” “Anitra,” I said, “I’ve only seen that name once before: ‘Anitra’s Dance’ by Grieg.” Smiling warmly, she replied, “That’s right. My mother used to play that record for me all the time.”

“Anitra’s Dance,” along with “Morning Mood,” “The Death of Ase,” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King” comprise one of the most familiar works in classical music, Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1. The familiar can get tiresome, but that was decidedly not the case Thursday night, as music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Philadelphians in a nuanced and pleasurable performance of this work. I could point to some details—such as the rounded crescendo on the third note in each triplet in “The Death of Ase” or the perfect tempo acceleration in the “Mountain King”—but the overall impression was more important. This work is an audience favorite for a reason.

Some composers finish a work and, reasonably satisfied with the results, move on to the next project. Others have trouble completing a work. They return for revisions, sometimes more than once, before declaring the latest version the one that should be performed. Thursday night’s concert included an example of each.

Bartok completed his Violin Concerto No. 2 in 1938. Not only did he leave it as is, but, according to the program notes, expressed his satisfaction with the piece: “I was very happy that there is nothing wrong with the scoring, nothing needs to be changed,” he wrote to violinist Joseph Szigeti, “even though orchestral ‘accompaniment’ is a very delicate business.” While this may seem immodest, this listener agrees that nothing needed to be changed in the orchestral part or, in fact, the violin part. All it needs is a consummate virtuoso, and that clearly describes the evening’s soloist, Gil Shaham. Demonstrating why he is one of the world’s most celebrated violinists, Shaham enlisted his jaw-dropping technique to present a performance that was both thrilling and, in the slow movement, deeply moving. Following a tremendous ovation, Shaham offered a delightful encore, the Gavotte from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for unaccompanied violin.

Sibelius struggled to produce his Symphony No. 5. He finished the first version of this symphony in 1915. He revised it the following year, and then completed a third version, which we heard in this concert, in 1919. It’s another of those pieces that has a long history with this orchestra—given its United States premiere by the Philadelphians under Stokowski, and then frequently played and recorded twice by Eugene Ormandy during his four decades with the orchestra. But regardless of the history, Yannick led a performance that stands on its own in revealing the dark beauty of this work. This was a performance to savor.

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