Saturday, February 4, 2023

Orchestra Hall, Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, Woodward Avenue, Detroit, Michigan

DSO ensembles occupied the first half – for Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Surprising to relate that the Stravinsky has never been included in a DSO concert prior to this run of performances with Leonard Slatkin (Music Director Laureate) and MSPC was returning to Detroit Symphony programming after a gap of two decades.

Slatkin chose the 1947 version of Symphonies, which loses a player (down to twenty-three) and the alto flute from the 1920 original, as well as adopting a few other changes of instrumentation; now three flutes through to a tuba. This account balanced well the music’s spiky and solemn aspects, an expressive and detailed reading, a sense of ritual to the fore as well as a profound feeling of loss (Symphonies was composed in memoriam Debussy, who had died in 1918), the DSO woodwind and brass contingent ‘sounding together’, appropriately.

… lengthy stage change, with the maestro speaking to us from the platform during the setting-up…

MSPC – two string groups separated by piano, harp, percussion and the named instrument – was finished in September 1936 and first-performed in January the following year in Basel conducted by Paul Sacher. The first and third movements are slow; the fugal opener distant and mysterious if accruing loudness and density (here hypnotically slow-burn, with dynamics carefully calibrated to an intense climax), with the third being eerie (used in The Shining; directed by Kubrick, with Jack Nicholson), introduced by a spooky xylophone and slithery strings, threadbare timbres of the night ghoulishly growing, superbly sounded here. The other two movements are fast, rhythmically vital, exploiting the antiphonal strings, played by DSO incisively to highlight interplay while not neglecting emotions, with the folksy passage in the Finale given affectionate bounce, other episodes ideally dovetailed to a summatory conclusion, MSPC greeted as a long-lost friend by the audience.

[BTW, I got to know MSPC, many years ago, from this recording, played it a lot, and also the Cantata B-side:]

Following intermission, the DSO reunited, if with no requirement for Stravinsky’s trombones and such as the contrabassoon, Garrick Ohlsson and Slatkin (longstanding musical comrades) conspired a magnificent traversal of Brahms’s equally magnificent First Piano Concerto (a Desert Island candidate for me from this genre, Beethoven No.4 another). The orchestral opening was trenchant, Ohlsson introducing the piano so naturally (his focus is always on the music he plays; no spurious look-at-me antics), pianist, conductor, and orchestra (wonderful woodwinds) unfolding the first movement expansively – everything fitted – a spaciousness, and also an intimacy, that informed the Adagio, here sublime, and often with exquisitely listener-embracing quiet dynamics. From transcendence to the earthly vigour of the Finale – not rushed though, Brahms adds non troppo to the Allegro marking, perfectly observed here – to fulfill a rendition that compelled attention, drew one in, and illuminated the music from the inside, Ohlsson’s virtuosity serving the music, Slatkin’s DSO a model of collegiate sensitivity and involvement. The Concerto cruised to its conclusion without upsetting what had gone before.

As an encore Chopin’s F-major Nocturne (Opus 15/1), typically announced by the pianist, beautifully and tempestuously brought off, and I am much looking forward to Mr Ohlsson’s forthcoming Hyperion release of two Schubert Sonatas: