Each of the four selections that conductor Edwin Outwater prepared for this week’s program by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall involved a different Eastern European composer with its own unique rhetoric and style. In order of appearance, these were György Ligeti’s 1951 “Concert Românesc” )Romanian concerto) and Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 26 piano concerto in C major (the third, composed in 1917) for the first half. This was followed by the orchestrations of three of Antonín Dvořák cycle of ten Legends (Opus 59, composed between December of 1880 and March of 1881) and Witold Lutosławski’s 1954 “Concerto for Orchestra” after the intermission. For those immediately interested in “the bottom line,” this was a program of discoveries and disappointments.
“Concert Românesc” was definitely one of the discoveries. This afternoon was its very first SFS performance. There was absolutely no trace of what one might call the “Ligeti sound,” which usually involves the thickest textures of counterpoint coming from the largest numbers of instruments, all playing different parts, many of which involve microtones. About the only familiar points of reference were some of the passages for horn, which provided a few hints of the horn trio that Ligeti would compose in 1982, and that consummate sense of wit that always seemed to find a place in anything Ligeti wrote.
Indeed, even the title may well have been a playful one. The piece had its origins in the transcription of folk material; but Ligeti knew better than to call it a “Romanian Rhapsody,” lest it be confused with George Enescu. It certainly could not be called a “Hungarian Rhapsody,” not only because it was not Hungarian but also because the last thing Ligeti would have wanted was any association with Franz Liszt. He could not even call it a “Dance Suite,” since Béla Bartók had claimed that title. Why call it a “Romanian Concerto?” As William Faulkner supposedly said about “The Bear,” “What else are you going to call it?” Besides, it had four short movements, even if there was little concerto-like about any of them.
Ultimately, the piece is a rhapsody and a delightful excursion through indigenous source material. However, Ligeti takes that trip with a decidedly unique voice that could not possibly be confused with that of any of his predecessors, certainly not Bartók or his ethnomusicological colleague Zoltán Kodály. Instead Ligeti came up with a musical treat unto itself, frequently finding witty perspectives in which to present his sources. Outwater caught the full spirit of that wit, and SFS seemed to take great pleasure in following him down the path that Ligeti had set for them.
There was a similar level of playfulness taken in the approach to the concerto. The soloist was Simon Trpčeski, and he was never shy in his approach to any of Prokofiev’s more raucous passages. During the first movement there seemed to be a few problems of balance, particularly involving Trpčeski’s upper register work. However, by the time the concerto had progressed to the theme and variations of the second movement, a confident agreement between soloist and ensemble had been established, making for one of the wittier accounts of just how far Prokofiev was willing to push the boundaries of what constituted a variation. The final Allegro non troppo movement then erupted into a dazzling blaze of fireworks that probably reminded all of us on audience side of just how much of a show-off Prokofiev could be.
Disappointment set in after the intermission. Here, however, I have to make a personal disclaimer. I have been enthusiastic about the four-hand literature for over 35 years; and I find that, even when my own capabilities are modest (which may, itself, be an exaggeration), I can still discover an abundance of imaginative invention in this genre. It was not that long ago that I finally got around to looking at the complete Opus 59 set with a neighbor, and I remember that time fondly.
Nevertheless, I was also aware of Dvořák’s orchestrations and even have a recording of them. However, I think it is important that any orchestral account not lose touch with the transparency of the original, particularly with respect to Dvořák’s skill in interleaving his melodic lines (which can also be found in his symphonies). From this point of view, Outwater’s account of his three selections, the second in G major, the sixth in C-sharp minor, and the tenth in B-flat (alternating between minor and major), had a thick opacity that often succumbed to syrupy rhetoric. This was most problematic in the final selection, in which Dvořák brings a definite “sense of an ending” to the full set. That sense never quite “took” in Outwater’s rather matter-of-fact approach.
In the case of the Lutosławski, the problem may have been as much with the composer as with the conductor. The title had clearly been chosen with an eye to Bartók’s use of the same nomenclature. There are even several (many?) instances in which the acute listener can detect Bartók’s influence at a rhetorical level, if not a thematic one. Nevertheless, Bartók conceived of his own five-movement composition with intense awareness of not only the idea of structuring the whole work around the diversity of sonorities afforded by the ensemble but also the casting of those structures in highly disciplined architectural forms. The result is that the listener is easily drawn into Bartók’s journey and follows him readily down the path he has designed.
Lutosławski’s composition, on the other hand, prioritizes the diversity of sonorities above all else. As a result, the formal structures of the three movements seem almost unrelated, as if each had been conceived as an independent exercise. The final movement, on the other hand, is in two distinct phases, the second of which seems to go through a series of fits and starts in establishing just when the final climax will take place. (Bartók has a few false climaxes of his own, but he was more skillful in luring the listener to stay with him until he finally arrives at the big one.)
To be fair to the performers, Outwater clearly had put considerable effort into deciding how to shape Lutosławski’s score; and SFS was definitely with him as he put his ideas into practice. Nevertheless, there are too many moments in the score in which it seems as if Lutosławski’s rule was “Nothing succeeds like excess.” Thus, while Outwater managed to rescue the final climax from sounding anticlimactic, he never quite provided a convincing argument that this was a trip worth taking.