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Sibelius: Finlandia & Violin Concerto; Beethoven Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral": Sarah Chang, violin, San Francisco Symphony, Marek Janowski, conductor, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 17.3.2006 (HS)



Something untoward was going on with Sarah Chang in this week's San Francisco Symphony subscription concerts. As radiant as she looked in a flowing white, black and silver number that moved like the breeze on her, her violin playing displayed little of the magic that has characterized her playing in only the recent past. This made the Sibelius Violin Concerto a problematic centerpiece of a concert that included brilliant accounts of Sibelius' Finlandia and Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony led by Marek Janowski.

Chang has often struck me as a puzzle. For years her glittering technique covered up a lack of soul, but in recent years I have heard welcome stirrings of emotion in her playing. In this performance, however, she poured on as much vibrato as possible, which went pear-shaped in phrases that ascended to the top range of the lower strings on her instrument. I might ascribe this to technical problems with her instrument, except that other phrases went uninflected or passed by so casually that the ebb and flow didn't.

There was nothing Nordic about her approach, either. For all the steel and reserve she displayed, she might as well have been playing Wienawski or Paganini. Call it Sibelius Lite. Janowski, who drew responsive playing from the orchestra through the entire program, soldiered on but in the end this came as a highly disposable rendering of a great concerto.

That's too bad, because the opening Finlandia blazed with Scandinavian cold fire. Janowski, who conducts the Berlin Radio Orchestra, the Monte Carlo Philharmonic and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, pressed the tempos to prevent any indulgences, and the sections distinguished themselves with crisp, persuasive playing. Even in the dense, low-range harmonies, textures and individual voices emerged clearly. The final pages, with their soaring melody against brass interjections, truly felt triumphant.

Janowski applied similar unsentimental standards to the Beethoven, as fleet a sequence of tempos as one expects to hear from a period-instruments band. Even the slow movement had the kind of pace that made it feel like the babbling brook in Beethoven's programmatic title. For all that, the rich orchestral sound was clearly in the modern style, all polished edges and burnished sheen.

The result was a beautifully framed musical scene, which, come to think of it, may have been was Beethoven was after in this, his most overtly picturesque symphony.



Harvey Steiman



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