Thursday, October 13, 2011

Bell and Petrenko and Elgar

Last week's San Francisco Symphony concert was highlighted by the British composer Edward Elgar's First Symphony from 1908, in a beautiful, committed performance led by the young Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko. (The sculpture in front of Davies Hall above is by another great British artist from a poor family, Henry Moore, who was ten years old when the First Symphony premiered.)

The concerts were being promoted as a showcase for the American violinist Joshua Bell, but the short Meditation by Tchaikovsky and the 1904 Violin Concerto by Glazunov both sounded like elevator music.

I asked my music lover friend Jack Murray in Santa Barbara if he was a fan of Joshua Bell, and he replied, "I would be if he played anything I wanted to listen to, but he usually comes through town playing something like the Mendelshohn Violin Concerto. And Glazunov? We used to have a classical music radio station down here that I called All-Glazunov-All-The-Time. It put you into a coma."

The 35-year-old Vasily Petrenko (above, conducting the Shostakovich Eighth with the San Francisco Symphony last year) managed to make the concert special, with an opening "Festival Overture" from 1954 by Shostakovich that reveled in the bombastic paean to the October Revolution. It was as fun and well performed as when the legendary Mstislav Rostropovich conducted it with the Symphony in 2006, which is saying something.

Elgar's ambitious, hour-long First Symphony after intermission was a revelation, sounding as if the composer of "Pomp and Circumstance" was taking Mahler as his model. The long, twisty first movement, the grotesque scherzo, the heavenly adagio, and the crazy, semi-resolved final movement all were reminiscent of the Viennese Gustav while never sounding like anything other than the very British Elgar. The final Sunday matinee performance was sensational and made me look forward to hearing the piece again.


Jeff Dunn said...

Glad you liked Elgar. Several have mentioned Elgar in connection with Mahler, which I think is a reflection of the two composers' relative fame today.

Back when Elgar was writing his first symphony, Mahler was barely known to Elgar. I doubt if he ever heard one of Mahler's symphonies; if so, it's not mentioned in any of the biographies of Elgar I own. On the other hand, one of Mahler's last conducting gigs in NY was to perform Elgar's Second symphony.

While I don't think there was a smidgeon of influence between these composers, both composers were influenced by the trends of the times--in the direction of giantism, like the buildup of their countries' war machines.

I personally find their respective ascetics quite different, almost opposite in many respects. To cite one obvious example, unlike Mahler, Elgar had little interest in incorporating popular and folk elements into his symphonies.

Like his friend Strauss, Elgar's main Germanic model was Wagner.

I hope you get a chance to hear the piece done by a different conductor. Even listening to a recording by Colin Davis or Adrian Boult or Barbirolli would be preferable in my view to Petrenkov's interpretation, which lacked the proper rubato essential to a proper understanding of Elgar.

It's a great symphony that sells itself even with a misguided conductor. The fact that MTT does such a good job with Mahler and eschews Elgar speaks volumes for the differences in their music--but even MTT would probably do a better job than Petrenko.

sfmike said...

Dear Jeff: I read your review of this concert at San Francisco Classical Voice and ended up disagreeing with you just about completely. Was Petrenko's conducting of the symphony the only or the best way to play Elgar's First? Probably not, but at least at the Sunday matinee performance, the orchestra gave a performance that was alive, beautiful and convincing.

And though I agree that it was "gigantism" in the musical air spurred on by Wagner worship that was probably the major influence, it was still surprising to hear how much like a Mahler symphony Elgar's First was sounding in this performance, though the melodies were more "Enigma Variations" and "Starlight Express" than Mitteleuropa folk tunes and marches.

By the way, I heard this Symphony the last time the San Francisco Symphony played it a couple of decades ago under Alisdair Neale and was bored silly, so I'm going to give Petrenko his due.

Incidentally, I'm listening right now to a performance of Mahler's Third on Bartok Radio from Budapest which couldn't sound more different than MTT's rendition at Davies Hall a couple of weeks ago, and they're BOTH great performances. With music, there's no one way.