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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Beethoven, Strauss, and Hindemith: soloists, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Symphony Chorale, Gerard Schwarz, cond., Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 26.3.2006 (BJ)

Beethoven’s third Leonore overture is, in all conscience, not a bad piece anyway. But hearing it after three weeks on vacation and away from music added a special frisson for me. Here was all the excitement of encountering the art afresh, and Gerard Schwarz’s uninhibited direction, which had that wonderful effect of seeming on the point of losing control without ever actually doing so, was thrilling in itself. At the other end of the program, it was a pleasure to be reminded what a great piece Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler symphony is, especially when realized by an orchestra of the Seattle Symphony’s very fine caliber.

In between, we heard–played by two of the orchestra’s principals–a pair of concertos by Richard Strauss: the early first one for horn, written when the composer was still in his teens, and the one for oboe dating from the opposite end of his long career. The Oboe Concerto showcased the talents of Nathan Hughes, who is clearly an artist of considerable stature. He phrased his taxingly long-breathed part with skill and taste, even if for this listener, spoiled in recent years by the sublimely rich and dynamically nuanced sonorities of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s peerless Richard Woodhams, Hughes’s actual tone seemed not particularly beautiful.

For me personally, however, the concert had a particular sub-text in the performance of the First Horn Concerto by John Cerminaro. Readers of these columns who are also long-standing devotees of Fanfare magazine may perhaps recall that, eight years ago, I got into hot water with Mr. Cerminaro when, reviewing his recording of the Mozart concertos, I opined that he sounded like “a sensitive and accomplished musician performing at less than his best. In terms of tone,” I added, “he is on the gentler, more domestically cultivated side of the sonic divide, along with such past horn-masters as Dennis Brain and Alan Civil and with contemporaries like Dale Clevenger and Erik Ruske, as opposed to the thrillingly bucolic brass sound made by Barry Tuckwell and Michael Thompson.” Mr. Cerminaro responded with a long and intemperate letter that complained of the “scathing” quality of what I had considered a gentle, measured, and fair review.

Well, in recent months I have come to know and admire the horn section he leads in the Seattle Symphony, which challenges comparison with, and handily surpasses, the corresponding sections of several more famous orchestras (witness my comments, in a recent review, on its magnificent work in Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony). And so, all in all, I approached this concert hoping fervently that he would play the concerto so superbly that I should be able to surprise him with a totally enthusiastic review. “Superb” is a by no means exaggerated term for what I heard on this occasion. Cerminaro is indeed, no doubt about it, a musician of exceptional artistry and technique. His playing of this work, difficult and rewarding as the concerto is (if less so than the composer’s Second Horn Concerto), was breathtaking in its fluency and grace. At the same time, I stand by my earlier characterization of his personal style of horn-playing. For me, the instrument loses something if it is not given its due as a brass instrument–an outdoor hunting instrument, let us remember. Only once or twice did Cerminaro really offer us a big, bold, uninhibited whiff of its brazen quality. I freely concede that all this is a matter of personal taste. If suavity, delicacy, and subtlety make up the total of what you want from a horn-player, Mr. Cerminaro is unquestionably your man. For me, he provides a superbly tasteful realization of half of what the horn is about.

Bernard Jacobson




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