Was it trailing clouds of glory, as it were, from his recent engagement with the Leningrad Philharmonic that prompted Joseph Silverstein to program a full evening of Russian music this weekend with the Utah Symphony?
Whatever the reason, it was the Leningrad portions of the program that proved the most successful Friday, if you acknowledge that as the spiritual home of Glazunov and Stravinsky. But in fact even Prokofiev put in his time at what was then the St. Petersburg Conservatory, making it perhaps three for three.In the case of the Glazunov, however, the glory would have to be shared, in this instance by violinist Cho-Liang Lin, returning to solo in that composer's A minor Violin Concerto.
The result was perhaps the finest of his three Utah Symphony appearances to date, a wonderfully lyrical statement of this unpretentious opus that for the first time in my experience managed to tie it to Bruch, specifically the "Scottish Fantasy."
Witness his quietly rhapsodic view of the opening movement, in which even the double stops were eased into gracefully, and the heartfelt concentration of the cadenza, where at times he managed to sound like two fiddlers at once, so artful was his handling of the two-part tremolos. After which the finale, for all its bravura quality, came across as a natural extension of what had gone before, songful and unhurried and, even in the more consciously virtuosic pages, always beguiling.
In this he was abetted by Silverstein and the orchestra, whose fragrant backing in the first movement was almost as tender as the soloist's. And although one frequently found oneself thinking, "What a lovely concerto this is," in truth it doesn't always sound that way.
Credit Silverstein, moreover, for an almost equally compelling account of Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite - here the 1945 version, with the extra material the composer added from the earlier pages of the ballet.
Once again the orchestra did not always seem up to the demands of the writing, for example in the sharply explosive "Infernal Dance," in which the brasses were sometimes stretched beyond their limit. But that was more than made up for by their wicked slurs and the rat-a-tat-tat of the timpani, not to mention the almost subliminal menace of the opening pages, here darkly lit yet occasionally quivering with excitement.
Nor did anyone let down in the mercurial Scherzo, here lithe and animated, or the wonderfully climactic Finale, beautifully bridged from the yearning "Berceuse," with every rhythm exact.
Would the same could be said of the opening piece on the program, the Second Suite from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" ballet. Certainly it was big enough, from the crashing dissonance that opens "The Montagues and the Capulets" to the almost Germanic weight of "Romeo at Juliet's Tomb."
But often that very weight worked against it, whether in the dogged determination of the opening movement or the overly heavy central sections (including a remarkably unpoetic "Romeo and Juliet Before Parting"). Nor were things helped by what sounded like some re-composing of the woodwind lines and string playing that was notably less icy than one remembers from this same orchestra under Yoel Levi, Robert Henderson and, if memory serves, Maurice Abravanel. And of course that is one of the wonderful things about Prokofiev - even when the fire burns hottest, you can still feel the cold steel.
- REPEAT PERFORMANCE: To no one's surprise, Heifetz (RCA) and Perlman (EMI) head the list of recorded performances of the Glazunov Violin Concerto, the first brilliantly incisive, the second a bit more humane.
Similarly Stravinsky himself, on CBS, tops the list of available "Firebird" Suites, although I would direct anyone interested in the complete ballet not only to him but to the stunningly transferred Dorati/LSO recording, on Mercury, Colin Davis' Philips CD and, on London, the luminously played Dutoit.