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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Bach and Beethoven: Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz, conductor, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 30.12.2005 (BJ)



In addition to a mid-December Messiah and the sort of New-Year’s-Eve shenanigans it offers in common with many other orchestras, the Seattle Symphony has in the last seven seasons established a substantial turn-of-the-year tradition with annual presentations of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Having just recently moved to the Seattle area, I attended this festive event for the first time on 28 December, and very much liked what I heard.

Before intermission, we were given a fairly rare opportunity to hear Bach’s Cantata No. 191, the composer’s only Latin-language church cantata, which is actually an adaptation he made in 1745 of materials better known from their use in the B-Minor Mass. The middle movement, Christe eleison, was suavely sung by soprano Sally Wolf and mezzo Susan Platts, whose excellent tonal blend promised well for the symphony. The Seattle Symphony Chorale sounded to my ear a trifle unfocused in the Bach; music director Gerard Schwarz was demonstrating some considerable chutzpah in programming such a work together with the Beethoven Ninth, whose finale, short as it is by comparison with the composer’s Mass in D Major, presents a chorus with even more cruel challenges in terms of vocal range and sheer physical stamina. As it turned out, however, all was well in the symphony, where the choral sections were dispatched with thrilling vividness and admirably clear diction. Here, too, Ms Wolf and Ms Platt achieved a well-balanced ensemble with their male colleagues: Kevin Langan was a commanding bass soloist, and Vinson Cole, whom I have hitherto associated more with Italian bel canto roles, sang his rollicking tenor solo with impressively heroic tone.

In the end, the success of Beethoven’s Ninth in performance rests crucially on the conductor’s shoulders. Securing admirably crisp tone from his orchestra, and helped by splendid contributions from fourth horn and second trumpet at their unconventional moments in the limelight, Schwarz gave an account of the work that was at once commanding in technique and expressively searching. I found his relaxed tempo for the scherzo a touch leaden, but elsewhere there was far more to enjoy than to carp at. And in the slow movement he was masterly, pacing the music with refreshing fluency, differentiating nicely between the basic Adagio molto tempo and the slightly faster second theme, and keeping the florid violin figurations of the later variations blessedly free from any hint of the vulgarity that can–yes, even in Beethoven–too easily blemish their execution.



Bernard Jacobson




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