I’m referring, of course, to the pianist who wasn’t on the program – Valentina Lisitsa. And if, gentle reader, you don’t know why Lisitsa and the Rachmaninoff concerto she was supposed to play weren’t on the program, I can only wonder what planet you’ve been on lately.
Once the TSO cancelled the concerto, the only thing left of the program was Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Yet this is such a massive work that a performance of it, and it alone, is a substantial stand-alone concert experience.
Concerning the sheer size of the piece, I feel I should lay my cards on the table. I’m not, generally, a big fan of Mahler. For me, his symphonies are often so expansive and elaborate that they become distended and overwrought. I do enjoy the relatively compact First Symphony. My least favourite is the Eighth: the first half is a scream-fest, and the second half seems to be some kind of singing competition. My feelings about the Fifth lie between these two poles. Of course, the “Adagietto” is absolutely gorgeous, but other movements have a way of getting lost inside themselves.
The TSO’s performance didn’t dislodge my unease and skepticism, where Mahler or this particular symphony are concerned. However, I came away very much impressed by the performance itself. Under the baton of former music director Jukka-Pekka Saraste (conducting from memory), the symphony was rich, colourful and vibrant. There was never a dull moment.
In Part I (the first and second movements), Saraste and the orchestra often emphasized the rustic, rough-hewn qualities of the score: boldly skirling strings, aggressive brass and honking woodwinds with their bells up. And in Part II (the third movement), Saraste skilfully negotiated sudden shifts in tempo and mood.
The “Adagietto” began and ended with a delicate tenderness, with the harp clearly penetrating a transparent veil of strings. A surge of lush energy at the climax gave the whole movement a satisfying formal arc. And the last movement was infused with agitated energy, culminating in a glorious, fulsome finale. Well done!
It’s a shame the hall was only half full. Evidently, the cancellation of Lisitsa’s appearance led to many patrons seeking ticket refunds, or simply declining to show up. However, unlike Wednesday’s performance, there were no protesters in confronting patrons in front of Roy Thomson Hall. Maybe a little drizzle was all that was needed to keep them at home, too.
© Colin Eatock 2015