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A Heroic Evening: the TSO performs Debussy, Szymanowski, and Beethoven
Review by Paul Merkley FRSC
Toronto ON April 714th 2019
The TSO hosted the talented 26-year old conductor Kerem Hasan last night, standing in at the last minute because Louis Langrée was ill. Hasan will direct the Innsbruck Symphony Orchestra beginning this fall. If I may judge from this performance—and that is a bit difficult given the short rehearsal time he had with the orchestra—he hears much of the repertoire in a structural way, rather than emphasizing expressive harmonic details. At times he reminded me a bit of Boulez.
Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was performed faster than usual. This interpretation brought out some features of the work that do not always come to the fore. The élan of the phrases, for example, came out well. Passages were reflective, though perhaps more in a cerebral way than in the colouristic, emotive manner to which most listeners are more accustomed. On the other hand, some of the special orchestral and harmonic effects that are prominent in slower performances were not as clear to me in last night's performance.
Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no. 1 op. 35 is a beautiful work, and it is a pleasure to hear the large orchestra deployed with all the effects, from two harps to finger cymbals. Solo violinist Christian Tetzlaff played expressively showing a sensitivity to the piece. The tessitura of the solo part is very high, and it would have been good to hear him perform it on a different instrument. As much as we might like to believe in stringed instruments like the cinematic Red Violin that would resonate beautifully in all registers (I love that film), the sound board of each individual violin is a piece of wood that with its own natural resonant frequency. Tetzlaff’s replica of a Guarneri probably thrives in a lower range. Problems of balance between soloist and orchestra were inevitable.
The work on the program of greatest scope and weight (although the orchestra was stripped down so far the stage seemed almost bare) was Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3 in E-flat Major, op. 55, “Eroica.” Arguably this work ushered in the romantic era. The program, the chromatic notes, and the motivic elaboration are traits of that music-historical period. The different movements come from different sources. The fourth movement is an orchestration of the composer’s Eroica Variations written for piano which are in turn based on the theme that Beethoven composed for the overture to the Promethus Ballet. The second movement is closely based on a march by Gossec written for a revolutionary hero. The third movement is original.
Many have argued over the first theme of the first movement: is it or is it not related to or derived from the theme from the ballet overture and therefore the fourth movement of the symphony? In 1981, Lewis Lockwood proved the connection in Beethoven’s earliest sketches for this work, and situated the creative process a year earlier, coinciding with the onset of the composer’s deafness and the difficult social and professional-social challenges that it posed. Could he trust that patrons would commission works from a deaf composer, or was it safer to exhibit a defensive, difficult personality to limit interaction and hide what they might consider an artistic disability? The hero in the Eroica is the composer himself.
I myself prefer slower tempi for all four movements than does Hasan. I missed some of the moments of strong dissonance and orchestral expression. The orchestra, working at short notice and without concert master Jonathan Crow, did its best to accomplish the faster tempi. For me, all four movements were too fast, but if honest voters may differ, how much more honest listeners? Despite my inclinations, I look forward to hearing Hasan conduct at future performances. I think he will make me listen differently than I do at present. And that is always my goal as a listener.
Guest conductor Juanjo Mena, soprano Joélle Harvey, contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Amadeus Choir, Elmer Iseler Singers and TSO will perform Mahler's Resurrection Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall at 8pm on Wednesday April 17th, Thursday April 18th and Saturday April 20th, 2019.
Violinist Christian Tetzlaff, Guest conductor Kerem Hasan and TSO
Photo credit: @Jag Gundu
Kerem Hasan conducts Beethoven Eroica Symphony Photo credit: @Jag Gundu