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Seen and Heard International Concert Review




Debussy: Jeux, Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major, Mahler: Adagio from Symphony No. 10, Wagner: Siegfried's Rhine Journey, Stewart Goodyear, piano, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 6.4.2006 (HS)



This program goes on tour later this month for performances in New York, Newark and Washington, D.C. It's a good one, even if soprano Celine Schafer's late cancellation scrapped Berg’s Lulu Suite. That, the Adagio from Mahler's Symphony No. 10 and the Debussy bauble Jeux were there to demonstrate how Wagner's music led to various stirrings of modernism. As the program notes suggest, at the turn of the 20th century, operating in Wagner's wake, different composers responded in their own way to Wagner's pushing of the compositional envelope. To hear Siegfried's Rhine Journey after such disparate pieces as Debussy's little ballet and Mahler's richly textured love poem in the Adagio makes it clear.

The program might have had slightly more bite with the Berg on it. Instead of the Lulu Suite, the symphony substituted Ravel's jazzy Piano Concerto in G, which got a beautiful and idiomatic performance from the Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear. Listeners on the tour cities will hear Jean-Yves Thibaudet, but it's hard to imagine anyone delivering a more cogent and articulate reading. Thibaudet has actually performed jazz, but his strong points are the harmonic and melodic complexities of the music rather than the rhythmic subtleties. At the very least, he has a different approach from what Goodyear displayed.

Classical pianists often go astray in articulating the rhythms in this concerto. They either miss the jazz origins by playing them too straight or, in an attempt to sound "jazzy" stretch them so much that they no longer sound French. Goodyear, however, feels the pulse and dances with it. He also has the technique to zip through the phrases with eye-popping élan. The result was a first movement that glowed with joie-de-vivre and a finale that scampered like a happy puppy. In between, he found the magic in the gorgeous slow movement, making the melody sing with an appropriate tinge of melancholy. Goodyear and Tilson Thomas also finished their phrases with remarkable precision.

(As a side note, listening to the jazz elements of this 1931 concerto, it is hard to avoid the impression that Gershwin was a more direct influence on it than Wagner was. To be fair, the program notes that each composer found his own way to respond to the demands of new and evolving musical language.)

The French portion of the program opened with Debussy's delicate piece of 1912 impressionism, which Diaghilev choreographed into a coquettish menage-a-trois scene. Even if the actual performance occasionally slithered out of focus, Tilson Thomas captured the feeling of things skittering around and the buildup to the brief climax was irresistible. You could almost see the tennis balls bouncing in from the wings, announcing the presence of another woman when it comes up in the story line.

The main event, the Mahler Adagio, got a lush and heartfelt performance. There was a high level of music making all around, and microphones caught these performances (in the week's subscription series) for the orchestra's nearly complete Mahler CD cycle. Let's hope that subsequent evenings yielded cleaner playing. The occasional intonation glitch in the violins and high reeds, not to mention slightly ragged entrances all around, kept it from reaching the sort of precision one wants on a recording. The brass, however, distinguished itself with burnished sound and welcome unanimity of approach.

The other strong point was the piece's ebb and flow, which felt exactly right—and, yes, Wagnerian. The brass chorales in the Mahler foreshadowed (in this program's order at least) the massed brass utterances in the Rhine Journey, which were delivered with the same smoldering fire. To hear Tilson Thomas and the orchestra sound out those famous leitmotifs was to wish this orchestra tackled Wagner more often. A concert Dutchman a couple of years ago was one of the recent highlights.



(The dates for the orchestra's eastern tour are April 19-20 at Carnegie Hall in New York, April 21 in Newark and April 22 in Washington, D.C.)



Harvey Steiman




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)