The last time pianist Malcolm Frager appeared with the Utah Symphony, back in 1987, I questioned where the audience was. Well, Friday at Symphony Hall they made it but, thanks to the flu, he didn't.
In his place we had Andre-Michel Schub, an artist of unquestioned stature, in the same piece Frager had been scheduled to play, the Concerto in A minor of Robert Schumann. The result, to my ears, was a curiously uneven performance, strongly chiseled from the outset (e.g., the unusually precipitous opening) but too often lacking in surge and genuine romantic warmth.Particularly in the opening movement, where the soloist's phrasing did little to unify the writing. Thus the slower sections seemed almost studied, the climaxes explosive. And although the Intermezzo sang a bit more, this too could have used a bit more lyricism, as well as a less brittle piano sound.
If the idea was to highlight the music's psychological extremes, it succeeded better than some. Still, only the finale had any real sense of purpose, largely through Schub's illumination of its more fanciful episodes. But even here he found himself at odds with the orchestra, which under associate conductor Kirk Muspratt failed to mesh with the soloist at several points.
Just the same I am tempted to call Muspratt the hero of this concert, not for his work in the Schumann but for giving us as a curtain-raiser Canadian composer Godfrey Ridout's "Fall Fair," a wonderfully invigorating piece in a performance to match, and his stimulating view of the other cornerstone of the romantic literature on this program, Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony.
To the first the conductor brought his customary energy, for a sharply enunciated reading in which all the British-isms were intact, from the Waltonian syncopations of the opening to the Holst-by-way-of-Vaughan Williams quality of the affecting central section, whose "big tune" built majestically.
In the "Pathetique," by contrast, things were reined in a bit, for an interpretation in which the emotion seemed all the stronger as a result.
Witness the darkness of the introduction, here appropriately moody, and the subdued ache of the lyrical main theme. Even the fiery Allegro vivo never burned out of control. Yet one felt the heat, both here and in the disciplined blaze of the march-scherzo, whose quivering excitement and smartly detonated climaxes, with their clipped percussion, prompted an ovation on their own - for once a truly spontaneous outburst.
After which the ache returned for the Finale, notable, as had been the second movement, for its controlled feeling and depth of sound. Which is to say even here Muspratt avoided undue sentiment and/or hysteria, letting the music's breadth of despair expire quietly and, ultimately, with resignation. Sickness unto death indeed - but not, one hopes, for Malcolm Frager.
- REPEAT PERFORMANCE: Murray Perahia's marvelously poetic CBS account is, for me, the best of the newer (i.e., all-digital) recordings of the Schumann Piano Concerto, joining such distinguished company as Fleisher, Istomin and Lipatti. For the "Pathetique" Symphony, my recommendations are unchanged: Ashkenazy (London), Giulini (EMI), Jansons (Chandos), Markevitch (Philips) and Mravinsky , all now available on CD.