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C Major Is C Major Is C Major?

available at Amazon
H. Vieuxtemps, Cello Concertos, A. Gerhardt, Royal Flemish Philharmonic, J. Caballé-Domenech
(Hyperion, 2015)

available at Amazon
U. Chin, Cello Concerto, A. Gerhardt, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, M.-W. Chung
(DG, 2014)
It was a June evening, which justified dressing down for an orchestra concert. Happily, there was no musical equivalent of casual attire on the fine program from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra led by Christoph König on Saturday night in the Music Center at Strathmore. The imposing but young German conductor, who debuted with the BSO in 2013, paired two symphonies that end, as he pointed out in brief comments at the concert's opening, in C major: Sibelius's seventh and Beethoven's fifth. The effect of the same tonal area could not be more different: Sibelius has the orchestra arrive reluctantly at the key, with the violins straining to resolve the leading tone to the tonic, while Beethoven hammers the resolution of dominant to tonic chords triumphantly.

Sibelius's final symphony, last heard from the National Symphony Orchestra in 2013 (although they played it better under Vladimir Ashkenazy in 2008), is in some ways more like a tone poem than a symphony, with themes that are transformed slowly over time, a sort of exercise in nostalgia and remembering. König spoke with enthusiasm about the piece, as if he had to defend it, and he elicited a strong performance from the musicians, especially in the undulating opening slow section, churning with molten but hidden heat. The faster parts did not perhaps quite hold together across the ensemble as they should, but that calming trombone theme, which Sibelius at one point marked with the name of his wife ("Aino"), was given room to soar, especially effective at the ecstatic build-up to its last appearances. If you have ever used the Sibelius music notation software, that program used to open with a little swirling bit of music, which comes from the first minutes of this symphony, always bringing a smile to my face when I hear the piece performed live.

Beethoven's fifth symphony requires a special interpretation to stand out, something unexpected like that heard from Mario Venzago in 2011. König's ideas were forceful, seemingly influenced by historically informed performance practice, so that the whole symphony was taken at no-nonsense tempi with crisp articulations and little distortion of the pace, even in the slow movement. As in the Sibelius, this created some ensemble tensions and lack of cohesion in the faster spots, in particular in the third and fourth movements, which König elided together with almost no modification of the tempo, taking his lead from Beethoven's ingenious blending of the scherzo and finale. When the scherzo returns later, there was almost the impression of the orchestra remarking, "Oh, yeah, we forgot to finish the scherzo!" As compelling as it was in some ways, the tempo demands in the finale had breathless results, and more than one musician could be seen shaking his or head about the unrelenting speed König imposed.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, A well-structured program from BSO, Konig, Gerhardt (Baltimore Sun, June 6)
In between the two symphonies came the welcome return of Alban Gerhardt to the area, as soloist in Shostakovich's first cello concerto, last heard from Sol Gabetta with the NSO in 2013. The German cellist played with the NSO in 2008 and 2006, and he was last with the BSO even longer ago. He has grown into this obsessive, disturbing work, an impressive performance that turned aside my initial wishes that Gerhardt would have brought one of the lesser-heard works, by Henri Vieuxtemps or Unsuk Chin, that he has recorded recently. Gerhardt's consistent and manic sound high on the A string was savagely single-minded in the opening movement but also soft and ardent in the slow movement. At the end of the second movement, one could have used a bit more heart-searing tone, à la Slava, and the double-stop section of the cadenza was a little off, but the ghostly harmonics, in duet with the celesta, were haunting. Gerhardt did have a tendency to rush and elide some of the more complicated passages, but König's perceptive ear and clean stick technique quickly put the train back on the rails.

Ionarts extends thanks to the professionals who are stepping down from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, recognized at this concert: librarian Mary Plaine, principal clarinetist Steven Barta and assistant principal clarinetist Christopher Wolfe, and cellist Paula Skolnik-Childress. Critics are paid to gripe, but the devotion of these talented people to the folly that is classical music receives only our admiration.

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