OTTO TAUSK AND VADIM GLUZMAN COMBINE FOR A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT SHOSTAKOVICH AND SIBELIUS

Vadim Gluzman, violin, VSO/ Otto Tausk: Works by Glinka, Shostakovich and Sibelius, Orpheum, October 14, 2017.

 All photos courtesy of Vancouver Symphony

All photos courtesy of Vancouver Symphony

This was the first appearance this season of Dutch conductor Otto Tausk, who will take over as Music Director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in its centenary year, starting July 2018. Tausk came full of the innocent excitement that only a young conductor can know, and gave us a fine showcasing of his excellent rapport with the orchestra. Naturally, his focus was on conscientious execution and the display of orchestral brilliance and power – convincingly impressive – but perhaps this had the untoward effect of placing his performances of Glinka and Sibelius on the less substantial, more showy side. The highlight of the evening was the performance of Shostakovich’s Second Violin Concerto with the lovely-toned Vadim Gluzman, where Tausk offered conscientious accompaniment.

Shostakovich’s Second Violin Concerto (1967) has long rested in the shadow of the composer’s First. Both were dedicated to and premiered by David Oistrakh, and the great violinist literally owned both of them up until the mid-1980s. The violinist’s Russian premiere recording of the 2nd was with Mravinsky, followed by the famous London Proms premiere with Svetlanov a year later. While the concerto shares with its predecessor a significant role for cadenzas (though none as long and forbidding as the one in the 1st), it presents sharper, more economical orchestral textures and a more subtle range of expressive intensity. The exclusive reliance on the horns as the only brass contributor is individual, and offers a new way of punctuating the musical argument. The opening Moderato sometimes hints towards the stark reaches of the composer’s late quartets (with its ominous three-note taps), while the extended Adagio recalls earlier symphonic adagios. The finale is more complex and burning in feel than its predecessor. While the First Concerto is now standard repertoire even for young violinists – performed and recorded endlessly – concert performances of the Second still remain rare, though there are about 10 recordings extant.

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Vadim Gluzman has previously given a strong reading of the First Concerto here, and what impressed about his reading of the Second is how well it was played and how well its narrative flowed. This was a very pure and sensitive reading, with a fine interpretative balance throughout.  Gluzman has a remarkably clean and beautiful tone and can move so fluently from light feathered articulation, to consuming warmth, to forceful attack. I am not sure he dug into the nerve-ends of the writing with the sinew and emotional gravitas of Oistrakh or the gripping intensity of Maxim Vengerov; nonetheless, the reading communicated a special cohesion and beauty on its own terms. A degree of understatement was apparent in the opening Moderato: Gluzman played down the intimations of the composer’s late quartets that fleetingly appear, and negotiated the Bach-like cadenza more with pristine objectivity than a pained undercurrent.  Throughout the violinist’s elegance and poise captivated, and he seemed to have his finger on many subtle transitions in the composer’s state of mind, building to the famous three ‘stabs’ in the cadential passages of the Adagio with decisive meaning. Gluzman also found a delightfully teasing motion in the finale that contrasted perfectly with its more pugnacious, insistent postures. I very much enjoyed hearing this violinist again: his purity of line, refined beauty, and sense of inward involvement would be very difficult to match among today’s violinists. Otto Tausk’s orchestral accompaniment was in general precise and tightly articulated, the horns making a fully creditable contribution.  The only area of reticence might have been in the Adagio, where the references to the slow movements of the 5th and 6th symphonies could have come out more clearly.

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Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila overture opened the concert like a firecracker, with Tausk cultivating strong and agile violins, with great expectancy and motion (recall Solti’s fizzing recording with the LSO). But it came down to earth fairly quickly, finding mainly precision rather than Russian colour in the winds, and not fostering much rhythmic fluidity between the timpani outbursts. I thought the consistent emphasis on the downbeats later on ultimately made the approach a little rigid and somewhat busy. It needed more bubble and delight, and I’m not sure why the brass had to sound Wagnerian at the end. The Sibelius First Symphony also elicited strong texture and body in the massed strings, precision in the winds and enviable cohesion in the brass – all very impressive. For all one might think of this early symphony as Tchaikovskian, this was nonetheless not a performance that mined the finer points of Sibelius style and sound, remaining quite outside the classic tradition spawned by Robert Kajanus, Anthony Collins, Paavo Berglund, and others. Without much naturalist imagery in place or length to the lyrical/dramatic arc, the work emerged as something of a ‘showpiece’, the conductor proceeding bit-by-bit, going for power at climaxes and pushing out the more sentimental romantic lines whenever they appeared.

The big problem seemed to be the absence of a long enough lyrical line to reveal the expanse and craggy grandeur of Sibelius’ writing. This was a performance of power without much majesty or nobility, all too guided by human hands. My reading is that Tausk likes an almost Neoclassical rigour in his symphonic expositions, but it is difficult to negotiate Sibelius through a taut, linear motion that eschews softer dynamics and relies mainly on emphatic sforzandi to reinforce structural nodes: a longer underlying flow is needed to suspend the music. Tempos were on the quick side, which also constrained the conductor’s ability to open out space. What this meant is that most of the conductor’s lyrical reach had to be ‘pasted on’ to his more severe style, which explains why he had to articulate expansive string lines (such as the big theme of the finale) in such a careful and studied manner. Both this and the calculated effort to wring emotion out of these stopping points struck me as self-conscious – something had not been thought through completely. Even the expressive wind lines often lost their spontaneity and pungency by the feeling of over-preparedness and control. There are other examples where Sibelian character was absent: at the opening (not remote or mysterious enough), in the Scherzo (little perception of the composer’s wit), and in the finale (agogic distortions of its line and tempo to seek ‘effects’).

There is something very exciting about the appointment of a new music director, and a great deal to look forward to. Right now, I am only concerned with Otto Tausk’s absorption of the unique style and sound of the composers he performs (slightly out in this Sibelius and in the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances of his previous concert), and the length and naturalness of his lyrical line. This is beyond the estimable sound the conductor can coax out of the orchestra. There are always limitations (and ‘nerves’) associated with debut concerts, but let’s hope these deficiencies disappear when the conductor has more time to settle in and relax with the repertoire he is undertaking.

 

© Geoffrey Newman 2017

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