Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Accursed Huntsman and Friends at Long Beach

"The German Huntsman", by Gustave Courbet.


Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center

A “French Fantastique” program sans Berlioz? Sacré bleu! To be fair, Maestro Eckart Preu did include the Symphonie Fantastique in his very first concert with the LBSO—entirely of music by French composers—after he had been chosen as the orchestra’s new Music Director but before his first full season (reviewed here). And in any case, this time around he made clear that the “Frenchness” was to do with spirit and content, and didn’t necessarily imply 100% French authorship.

Looking before the event at the works listed, this did seem a rather heterogeneous collection of pieces, as well as perhaps a bit short-measure, but it’s time I learned to trust Maestro Preu’s program-building. Though both the opening items were slowish, extracts from larger wholes, and with strings-dominated textures, they were entirely different in expressive style and intent.

André Caplet (left) and Claude Debussy (right). 
In his introductory remarks Preu noted that Clair de lune—the only movement, it would seem, that Debussy’s friend André Caplet (1878-1925) orchestrated from the early piano Suite bergamasque L. 82—is not lushly “romantic,” as often presented, but rather cool, poised and unemotive, a perfectly distilled nocturnal impression.

His performance duly observed this, the tempo easing forward to befit the Andante marking, with playing as dolcissimo as you could desire from the LBSO strings, on stellar form for the whole evening. The balance between them, the double woodwind band, and the harp, was clear throughout, with every strand telling, and the piece’s two brief forte climaxes were powerful enough to remind one that there is some fiber behind the diaphanous textures.

Of the four composers represented (five if you include M. Caplet), Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) was the only one with no French blood, being of Austro-Hungarian extraction. Maestro Preu remained on the platform to continue with the Intermezzo from the opera Notre Dame (1904-06), this short item being, as he had remarked, the only piece by Schmidt that has “travelled” beyond his central European heartland.

Franz Schmidt as cellist, after an etching
of Anton Karlinsky (Wien Museum). 
Schmidt’s output is compact: relatively few but large-scale orchestral works including four symphonies; two operas; five large chamber works; a sizeable number of organ compositions plus a handful of other instrumental pieces; and one oratorio. For my money his Symphony No. 4 in C major stands particularly high in any array of major 20th-century symphonies, whilst the magnum opus of his final years, the oratorio Das Buch mit Sieben Segeln (The Book with Seven Seals), is simply one of the greatest choral/orchestral works of the last century, if not beyond.

It might have been an idea to preface the Intermezzo with the orchestral introduction that precedes it, as it’s quite brief, and its brilliant, ebullient textures would have added context to, and deepened the impact of, the radiant lushness of the Intermezzo. But as it was, the LBSO strings changed gear quite marvelously for the Intermezzo: gone were the floating, diaphanous textures of the Debussy, to be replaced by exactly the saturated richness that Schmidt’s passionately intense portrayal of Notre Dame’s doomed gypsy heroine Esmeralda demands, further enhanced by two harps and capped by a single cymbal-clash at the climax. The only regrettable thing was that, as Maestro Preu noted, it’s over all too soon and always feels as if there should be more of it.

César Franck, photographed by Pierre Petit.
The works-list of César Franck (1822-1890) is comparably compact and not dissimilar in content from that of Schmidt: large-scale chamber and orchestral works (one symphony this time), a couple of operas and plenty of organ music, but in his case far more choral/orchestral works plus some solo and choral songs.

Aside from the Symphony in D minor, formerly a concert staple but performed less frequently in recent years, Franck’s main orchestral achievement was his contribution to the Lisztian-model symphonic poem. To end the first half, Maestro Preu led the LBSO in an absolutely rip-roaring performance of Le Chasseur maudit (The Accursed Huntsman), composed in 1882.

With its sectional structure and much repetition of the principal motifs, a less-than-wholehearted performance can seem tiresomely repetitive, but this didn’t put a foot wrong, shaped and coherent as it was from the brazenly authoritative opening fanfares on the four horns, through the grandiose swing of the central section, to the huntsman’s final doomed pursuit via a terrific fff climax into the abyss by demons conjured up here as scarily as J. K. Rowling’s Dementors. As exciting an account as the classic recording by Charles Munch, this for me was the highlight of the concert.

In a curiously parallel but opposite motion, as the presence of Franck’s Symphony in D minor in concert programs has diminished over the last few decades, so performances of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 in C minor Op. 78 have increased in number. I can remember when it was a real rarity, in England anyway, its worth passionately argued for by enthusiasts; now the battle is clearly won. The great popularity it has achieved is doubtless at least in part due to the spectacular concluding movement that has earned the nickname “Organ Symphony,” but there’s more to it than that.

Camille Saint-Saëns, c.1880.
While his first five symphonies are worth seeking out (there are two unnumbered ones from 1850 and 1859 as well as the official No. 1 in E-flat major (1853) and No. 2 in A minor (1859)), there’s no doubt that No. 3, written at the height of the prolific Saint-Saëns’ powers in 1886, far outstrips them. Thematically memorable from beginning to end, with a subcutaneous network of motivic and harmonic interconnections pulling together its original and economic deployment of symphonic form, the Third Symphony’s C-minor-to-major, darkness-to-light progress is as sure-footed as its Beethovenian model.

Saint-Saëns knits together the traditional four-movement symphonic layout in two pairs. For me, Maestro Preu’s tempi for both the Adagio opening and its Allegro moderato continuation were a little on the slow side, though the latter may have been to (successfully) aid clarity in the quietly chattering 16th-note progress that pervades so much of it.

On the other hand, this moderate basic tempo emphasized the continuity of the whole long first movement when it segued mid-way (via exquisitely sensitive touchings-in on flute, bassoon, horn and lower strings) into the Poco adagio that corresponds to the traditional slow movement. Here the (electronic) organ, pedals only, made its first appearance—impressively sonorous if a little “up-front,” inevitably, compared with the effect from the more usually distant pipes in a cathedral setting.

Having taken a bit of a back seat during the fanfaring and thundering of the Franck, the LBSO strings once more came to the fore and excelled themselves, delivering seamless legato playing as appropriately soft as in the Debussy, and as powerful as in the Schmidt. If only, as the movement came to its deeply peaceful end, it hadn’t been followed by joltingly inappropriate inter-movement applause...

Once again original, Saint-Saëns introduces a piano to delineate—beautifully clearly in the often cavernous Terrace Theater acoustic—the textures of the central “trio” section in the Allegro moderato first half, corresponding to the symphony’s “scherzo,” of the bipartite second movement. And then, after another immaculately controlled orchestral winding-down, the expert fingers of Jung-a-Lee let the organ rip.

Though everything happened as spectacularly as it should (does any symphonic finale teem with more bell-like celebration than this, without actually having any bells in the score?), it was just as notable for its quieter moments, with some radiantly pastoral woodwind caroling, not to mention the Carnival-of-the-Animals-like tumbling interplay of the now four hands on the piano keyboard.

All in all, the performance was a triumph, greeted with a deserved standing ovation, after which Maestro Preu and his fine orchestra even topped the fervor of the symphony’s finale with a swirling account of the “Can-Can” from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, trumpets and trombones on their feet belting out the hit tune with the audience enthusiastically clapping along.


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, November 16, 2019, 8 p.m.
Photos: The German Huntsman: WikiArt; Eckart Preu: Courtesy LBSO; Caplet and Debussy: Mail Online; Schmidt: FSO website; Franck: Wikimedia Commons; Saint-Saëns: Wikimedia Commons.

If you found this review to be useful, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee!

No comments: