Louis Lortie, piano: VSO/ Gordon Gerrard, Works by Beethoven, Saint-Saens and Sibelius, January 30, 2016.

This was a Canadian-focus concert, featuring celebrated pianist Louis Lortie and the Associate Conductor of the Vancouver Symphony, Gordon Gerrard, who made his debut in the orchestra’s main ‘Masterworks’ series.  Maestro Gerrard has also recently been appointed as Music Director of the Regina Symphony. The programme was a bit of a strange combination: Saint-Saens ‘Egyptian’ Concerto for the first half, with Sibelius’ Second Symphony concluding the evening.  I thought that the Sibelius contribution was important since, unlike many other orchestras, the VSO treaded lightly in celebrating the 150th anniversary of the births of both Sibelius and Carl Nielsen last year.  We heard only a few relatively minor pieces of Nielsen and only Sibelius’ Symphonies No. 5 and 7 (with mixed results). So the audience – indeed another sellout – was certainly ready for the larger 2nd Symphony.  Maestro Gerrard sent the concert off with fine gusto: a performance of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture that displayed appropriate sinew and structural control – and some fire too.

Louis Lortie definitely arrived on fire as well, bringing tremendous energy and virtuosity to the Saint-Saens concerto, making its solo part very Lisztian – often weighty and volcanic, full of motion and everywhere consuming.  The playing was sufficiently commanding and full of bravura that this would have been a rare display for the audience even if no one had an idea about which composer was being played.  And in some ways I didn’t quite know myself.  I am used to the viewpoint that the Saint-Saens concertos (and especially the ‘Egyptian’) are very thin works, filled with unmemorable tunes and derivative gestures, and that they have to be treated with kid gloves, coaxed to life by sheer charm, imagination and ingenuity.  Plus they must also be taken as somewhat tongue-in-cheek – originally constructed to delight Parisian audiences – rather than something with any earthshaking pretense. 

Thus, the first movement of the 5th Concerto begins with a true travelogue feel (actually conceived of as a sea journey by the composer), a breezy tour of sights and sounds, quintessentially Gallic, always visiting little sentimental resting spots en route.  As the classic recordings of Stephen Hough and Pascal Rogé have shown, it is the exquisite balance between the motion and the resting spots that can make all this quite charming.  As especially Hough shows, one has to go even further in the second movement to bring credibility to the exotic Egyptian effects.  One almost has to conjure up a child’s fantasy tour in an imaginary world -- now we visit this strange place, now another one.  One can just hear a entranced young child saying: “Mommy, is that really the Sphinx or is that really the Nile?”  In this pianist’s hands, this movement is simply adorable, and Ravel would have loved it.  The finale takes us back home through a bubbling free-for-all of delight, often mixing the comic and trite.

Suppose instead you decide to push the work at a fast pace, so that the charming little resting spots dissolve, remove the Gallic insouciance, and treat the music as serious and strongly dramatic. This seemed to be the approach of Lortie and Gerrard, perhaps an earnest attempt to give the work stature.  Here there was a bursting athleticism and plenty of power but few sustained moments of real delicacy, gentle caprice or scented fragrance from either the soloist or the orchestra.  I admire experiments and I could describe what happens under these circumstances, but I have difficulty putting my reaction in print.  Let’s just say that hearing all the trite tunes and exotic effects forcibly projected at you in the light of day, free of any Gallic charm and fantasy, is truly a testing experience.  There are very definite reasons why the best performances of this work don’t try this.    

Sibelius’ 2nd Symphony is an easier debut piece than, say, the composer’s 4th but it is still a challenge. I thought that Maestro Gerrard rightly took a straightforward approach to the work, keeping it quite tightly in check.  He did not particularly seek out Finnish mists or epic spaces, nor cultivate seeped, long-breathed string lines.  The peaks and valleys of the opening Allegretto were negotiated with fluency, though it was evident that a greater effort was made in building the former than mining the contemplative stillness of the latter.  This is perhaps why I felt the movement moved by quickly.  The wind participation was generally good but I often felt that it was a little polite, not pungent enough.

Some interpreters try to achieve a very soft, distilled texture and a sense of inexorability at the start of the next movement, with the isolated bass pizzicato progressing almost without motion.  Here things were faster; everything a little more alive and purposive.  I am not sure that this added anything; perhaps this decision actually made it more difficult for things to ‘just unfold’. I did notice more stress in the movement’s tempestuous middle sections: string phrases unnaturally shortened, a tendency to speed up, and some sense of fragmentation too.  Nonetheless, I thought the results were creditable.  A relatively comfortable Scherzo set up the epic march home, which had a nice enthusiasm to it and pretty fine control.  Perhaps the trumpets were a little too loud to start and there was some heavy weather half way, where the conducting reduced from on the beat, to more note by note, but the basic pulse always survived. 

I thought that the orchestral execution was reasonably good but lacked really sharp characterization in the brass and the winds; we were some distance from a true Sibelius sound.  I could also visualize a more earth-shaking volume and weight at the very end but what came forth was probably in keeping with the smaller scale of the performance.  Perhaps the only other thing I might question was the decision to bring out the lower brass theme to give a rustic ‘marching band’ effect to the trudge home.  I think this undercut the nobility of the music to a degree: Sibelius is not rustic in any commonplace sense, more naturalistic and wedded to the timeless world of the Kalevala.  

The audience rightly gave Maestro Gerrard a very strong ovation at the end.  He will conduct the work twice more in this series (on subsequent days); I expect a good portion of my qualifications will vanish by the final concert.


© Geoffrey Newman 2016