The dawn of the 19th century saw all of European culture transformed by the eruption of romanticism, the reverberations of which continue to affect us today.The importance of the individual, the primacy of passion, the suitability of the artist’s psychological states as a subject of his creation, are fundamental to the romantic movement, and all figured in the two principal works appearing on this weekend’s concerts by the Spokane Symphony at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox: The Piano Concerto No 1 in E minor Op 11 by Frederic Chopin and the Symphony No 1 in C minor Op.68 by Johannes Brahms.
To launch this consideration of romanticism, music director Eckart Preu perceptively programmed a short orchestral work, “Elegy” (1965), by American composer John Corigliano, one of the most successful figures in the re-emergence of Romanticism in our concert music. From its opening measures, in which pairs of flutes and clarinets combine in haunting duets, Corigliano ventures to be quite beautiful. When the winds were joined by the string sections of the Spokane Symphony, one was struck by their tonal lustre, perfection of intonation and impeccable unison of phrasing. These qualities formed the bedrock upon which the remainder of the concert rested.
One need search no farther for a personification of European romanticism than Chopin, whose first piano concerto shows his genius in full flower. This weekend’s soloist was pianist Clair Huangci, the gifted winner of Chopin competitions in both Darmstedt and Miami. As an artist who focused entirely on the piano, Chopin was an innovator both as a composer and as a performer. As a pianist, he revolutionized technique to allow the performer to approximate the qualities of the human singing voice by emphasizing three devices: tone color (achieved through a combination of touch and pedaling), legato (in which notes are bound seamlessly together), and rubato (the art of subtly varying the time given to individual notes in a phrase without altering the basic tempo).
Huangci possesses great fluency, clarity and power at the keyboard, all admirable qualities. It is surprising, therefore, that her performance on Saturday night was so lacking in the elements that are most germane to playing Chopin. Her tone was attractive, but limited to a brightness that was like a diamond in both brilliance and hardness. There was little legato in evidence, even in the lyrical passages of the first and second movements, so that each note stood out in sharp relief. This resulted in an impression of fierce assertiveness that is not normally associated with Chopin.
Most regrettable was the almost complete absence of rubato in her playing. This essential attribute allows the performer to reveal the depths of fancy and imagination with which Chopin ornaments his lovely melodies, and fills out his striking harmonies. Lacking the necessary flexibility of phrasing, such passages (plentiful in the E minor concerto) became mere filigree, and flew by unheeded.
In fact, the primary source of romantic feeling in the concerto was the orchestra, which continued to supply the tenderness, warmth and nuance withheld by the soloist. Chopin’s orchestral writing is routinely dismissed as inept, but, under Preu’s sensitive direction, much beauty of color and shading was revealed, especially in the playing of bassoonist Luke Bakken and horn Anne Marie Cherry. Both assumed the role of principal in their sections during the first half of the progrm, and both played magnificently.
The great treat, and great surprise of the evening came in the final work on the program, the Brahms. One was not looking for surprises here, as Preu has amply demonstrated his gifts as a Brahms conductor in many past concerts, some including this very piece. It became clear, however, that he did not intend to rest on his laurels, but had plunged back into the score to reconsider and refresh his view of this masterpiece by the greatest symphonist after Beethoven.
What was most remarkable was Preu’s re-envisioning of the architecture of the symphony. Formerly, he presented it as a continual arc of enery, beginning with the first timpani strokes, and pressing on urgently to the final apotheosis of Brahms’ glorious brass chorale in the closing pages. The structure that emerged on Saturday night was equally coherent, but quite different in revealing the constant ebb and flow of energy throughout the piece.
Not only between movements, but within sections of movements and even phrases, Preu and the orchestra showed how Brahms employs moments of serenity or relaxation to build tension and renew energy which is then released as turbulence or exaltation. Still underlying these cycles was the inexorable momentum toward the triumphant chorale passage, which burst upon the audience like a sun.
Throughout the Brahms symphony, the orchestra surpassed itself in beauty and richness of tone, suppleness of phrasing and sheer stamina. As long as it continues to perform like that, we can rest assured that the heritage of romanticism is in good hands.
A recording of this concert will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Monday on Spokane Public Radio, 91.1 FM.
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