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S & H Concert Review

Schuman, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky; Boris Berezovsky(pf), Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Litton, 30th May 2003, RFH (AR).


Dallas Symphony Orchestra Music Director Andrew Litton is in great demand as a guest conductor and performer worldwide. In his ninth season as Music director of the DSO, New York born Litton is one of but a handful of Americans heading a major American orchestra so, in part, at least one American work was expected.

William Schuman’s Fifth Symphony (Symphony for Strings) was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitzky on November 12th 1943. The first movement, Molto agitato ed energico was described by Bernstein as "… rugged, athletic" and this was just how it sounded under Litton and the DSO. The versatile strings took on multi-layered textures from the refined and the silky smooth to the raw, rough and grainy. This movement combined taut, muscular rhythms, eschewing mere prettiness.

The strings in the Larghissimo had a melting quality, dissolving from one level of intensity of tone and feeling to another, whilst the highly concentrated closing passages were starkly hushed. With the closing Presto the strings showed off their vivacity and versatility, playing the pizzicato passages with great verve; it was a blissful experience of a work which deserves to be better known.

Boris Berezovsky’s playing of Sergey Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3 can only be described as problematical. It was to be assumed that a Russian born and trained pianist would be ideally suited to interpreting the work of this last, great Russian romantic composer, but sadly this was not the case. This was not even the real Rachmaninov, but a highly idiosyncratic reading which tended to distort the work’s essential dynamic.

In the first movement, for instance, I found his playing too heavy-handed, producing a hard metallic edge, whilst sounding somewhat mechanical and detached. We were treated to some wonderfully expressive string playing in the introduction to the Intermezzo (Adagio), which was completely at odds with Berezovsky’s clangourous tone, and his curious alternation between playing either excessively loudly or far too quietly - almost to the point of inaudibility.

The Presto was crudely bashed out with the notes sounding congested and indistinguishable, producing a lot of noise but hardly any music, whilst again the quieter passages were barely audible. What saved this movement was some subtle brass playing and in the closing passages the swooning strings had great warmth and weight. Whilst Berezovsky was near note-perfect, the delivery was somewhat maladroit. The pianist’s contrived and indulgent playing was compensated for by Litton’s loyal support, securing sensitive playing from his superb orchestra.

Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird (1945 version) gave the DSO a chance to show its true colours, with all the players giving their utmost: notably some exquisite woodwind solos, and the nerve shattering playing of the bass drum which caused some of the audience to jump in the opening of the Infernal Dance. Litton perfectly paced these 1945 fragments (which are seven minutes longer than the 1919 Suite) weaving them into a perfect, seamless whole.

Far from sounding like a standardised, streamlined American orchestra, the DSO combined a refined, homogenised sound with a grainy cutting edge to it. Litton adapted his forces extremely well and despite the RFH’s notoriously recessed and dry acoustics, every member of the orchestra sounded far more forward than one usually experiences, allowing us to appreciate some marvellously detailed playing.

The highlights of the evening were the two encores: George Gershwin’s Lullaby for Strings and The Promise of Living from Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land, which were both given glowing performances.

Alex Russell

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