Chamber Orchestra Review

Stuttgart in Pinehurst: Virtuosity and Spontaneity

March 12, 2003 - Pinehurst, NC:

An attentive audience in Owens Auditorium March 12 was rewarded with an extraordinarily satisfying concert by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra under the vital direction of the noted composer-conductor Dennis Russell Davies. The well-chosen program allowed a full display of the orchestra as a group as well as its individual strengths. Perfect intonation and precise attacks were the order of the evening. Balances among the sections were ideal, and the choices of dynamics were as sensitive as they were marvelous. Most heartening of all was the palpable sense of the sheer joy of music making. Despite the rigors of touring there was no perception of anyone just dutifully fiddling along on professional autopilot without real engagement with the compositions. It is too bad the otherwise very full program notes did not list the orchestra personnel so the many solos could be fully credited.Two horns, two oboes and a harpsichordist joined the nineteen strings for the opening Symphony No. 65, in A Major, composed by the forty-year-old Franz Joseph Haydn in 1772. This is one of several symphonies that were probably adapted from incidental music originally composed for plays.

Davies' interpretation of what H.C. Robbins Landon (in notes for Dorati's Haydn recordings) calls the "weird repeated violin quavers," near the beginning of the Andante, revealed them as one of Haydn's jokes. In the Minuet, "the composer wrote one passage in the usual 3/4 meter," Landon reminds us (in notes for Sony KS 53985), "but it sounds like 4/4 because of... off-beat [s] forzati ." The horns and oboes blended beautifully in the opening Vivace, and they brought out the lusty spirit of the Hunt in the brilliant Finale, again described by Landon (SK 53985) as "one of the first of the composer's famous hunting movements, featuring the French Horns as solo instruments."

As a reviewer, I have listened to a number of recordings of Glass's music - symphonies, the Violin Concerto, the two String Quartets - and have heard a number of works in live concerts, including an all-Glass organ recital on Charleston's Piccolo Spoleto Series. From all that, I have a certain affection for the organ version of "Mad Rush" only - it is short and doesn't overstay its welcome. Although Davies is one of the foremost advocates and interpreters of the composer, the presenters, knowing the parameters of their audience well, wisely talked the visiting ensemble out of playing a piece by Glass, and instead of something with "minimal" interest to the Pinehurst subscribers, there was, instead, a scintillating performance of Bela Bartók's Divertimento for Strings, Sz.113. Written in only fifteen days in Basel, Switzerland, while he was staying with its dedicatee, Paul Sacher, this has to be one of the composer's most good-humored pieces. Paul Griffiths, in notes for DGG 445825, says the composer described it as "first movement sonata form, second movement approximately ABA, third movement rondo like." It abounds with the composer's sublimation of folk styles, with frequent changes of meter. In an homage to the old concerto grosso form, the first chair players - and especially the concertmaster, principal second violinist, and principal violist - frequently function as a concertante set against the ripieno. Even the principal double bassist had several solos - nearly as many as the principal cellist did. Grins of delight showed the sheer joy of the players as they carried out what Griffiths says are the "games of canon and inversion (that) contribute much to the music's playfulness."

Tchaikovsky's well-known and frequently-performed Serenade in C for Strings, Op. 48, brought the concert to a delightful conclusion. I cannot imagine this work being better played. Davies totally avoided a heavy lushness, string articulation and phrasing were ideal, and the rhythms were taut and well sprung. The Elegie was a pearl beyond price. Area presenters need look no further when seeking a great chamber orchestra. I'm sure the presence of a master conductor at the helm did not hurt either.