In their pre-concert discussion Friday in Symphony Hall, Utah Symphony music director Joseph Silverstein asked composer Benjamin Lees how he was able to make his Violin Concerto so difficult and, at the same time, sit so well on the instrument. Had he himself studied the violin? No, Lees answered, but "I used to listen to Heifetz a lot."
Not a bad model, but I doubt even he could have played it better than did Elmar Oliveira in the concert that followed.Throughout his control was absolute, from the long lyric lines of the opening movement, here spun out effortlessly, to the more incisive sections of the finale. Yet always he put himself at the service of the music, whether in the hypnotic first-movement cadenza or the concentration he brought to the central Adagio, in which his playing shone like a darkly glistening jewel.
About the work itself I still have some qualms. Composed in 1958, it is indeed a lyrical essay, albeit of a distinctly somber cast. That is no problem in the first two movements, especially given the color and intensity Oliveira and Silverstein found in the writing. But after this the finale not only sounds disjointed - which it is not - but the soloist seems to recede a bit amid the jagged orchestral interjections, which border on the sardonic. Or at least he did Friday, and I am not sure that was the fault of the performers.
Otherwise this was a typical Silverstein program, the concerto being bracketed by a Haydn symphony and the Brahms Second Symphony. At least that was the combination with which he launched the orchestra's 1986 European tour, the Haydn symphony there being No. 96. Here it was No. 91, an equally worthy opus, in a performance that mirrored both its robust humor and adventurousness.
Here and there textures seemed a trifle thick, somewhat obscuring the counterpoint and occasionally the bassoons. But tempos could not have been more agreeable, from the energy and elan of the first-movement Allegro to the controlled exhilaration of the finale. Especially in the second-movement theme and variations, whose characteristic tread emerged in jaunty fashion, aided by its deftly muted woodwind solos and solid low-string underpinning.
In short, a performance superior to the one I remember 96 receiving in '86, and I would have to say the same about the Brahms. Not only were there fewer uncertainties in the orchestra, but Silverstein himself now seems able to invest the expansive opening movement with greater continuity than before.
The result was a reading a bit longer on sunlight than warmth per se but, except for the occasionally pushed Adagio, admirable for its firmness and sense of direction. Thus the forcefulness of the climaxes in the first two movements prepared one for the rugged exuberance of the finale, with the open-air perkiness of the Allegretto that comes in between supplying a needed whiff of charm and, toward the end, wistful melancholy.
- REPEAT PERFORMANCE: Riccardo Muti's new recording, on Philips, impresses me as the best of the newer Brahms Seconds, joining those of Toscanini (RCA), Klemperer (EMI), Walter (CBS), Steinberg (MCA), Boult (Nixa), Abbado and Wand (RCA) at the head of a long list of recommendations.
By contrast the choice in the Haydn 91st is pretty much between Davis (Philips) and, on period instruments, Kuijken (Virgin), each invigorating in its way. But if I could have only one, it would be the latter.