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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Mozart: Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Roberto Abbado, cond., Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 24.4.2006 (BJ)

My spies tell me that Mozart’s last symphony, after intermission, received far the best performance of the evening. So perhaps it was a mistake to vote with my feet, and perhaps I owe Roberto Abbado an apology. But after the dismal first half, featuring the composer’s 39th and 40th symphonies, I had no stomach for more in the same vein, and I went home.

What was wrong? Well, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, appearing in the Seattle Symphony’s visiting orchestras series, played with its accustomed skill and a fair degree of polish (though a number of important passages for the horns, in particular, made little impact). It would take a more than normal expenditure of wrong-headed effort to make an orchestra of this quality to play badly. But interpretatively there was a huge void. The sense of tonal and thematic drama that must be at the heart of any adequate performance in the classical sonata-form repertoire was missing. Granted, there were a few nuances–but mostly they were totally predictable, mostly they came at totally predictable junctures in the musical argument, and mostly they were repeated the second time around, which inevitably brought the law of diminishing returns into play. A particularly egregious example was Abbado’s shaping of the main theme in the first movement of the G-minor Symphony: playing the opening leg of the theme straight and then subjecting the second one to a big crescendo and diminuendo was a bad enough idea in the first place; heard a second and a third time as the movement progressed, it became obtrusive to the point of parody.

As to the vexed and often vexing matter of repeats, an integral element in any classical symphonic structure, Abbado omitted no fewer than seven of them in those two symphonies alone, which I suppose in the circumstances may be regarded as a mercy. In the usual course of events, as I hope regular readers will know, I am much more inclined to enthuse than to decry, and I don’t like writing negative reviews. But the younger Abbado is one of those conductors enjoying careers of a magnitude that puzzles me. I have now heard him–and previously stayed to the end!–several times, and on none of those occasions has anything whatsoever of musical consequence happened. I came to this concert fervently hoping to change my mind about him; it is always a joy to discover that someone you thought mediocre or worse is actually very good. As he chugged his imperceptive way in each movement, however, from 8th-note to uninflected 8th-note, and from exposition to bland development and undramatic recapitulation, I realized that this time it wasn’t going to happen. And a critic has a responsibility to his public to tell the truth as he sees it, even when it is unpleasant.

Bernard Jacobson




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