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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Toronto Symphony Sounds Like A Virtuoso Under Stéphane Denève

By Arthur Kaptainis on March 29, 2018

Inon Barnatan, Stéphane Denève (Photo: Nick Wons)
Toronto Symphony Orchestra: Stéphane Denève (guest conductor), Inon Barnatan (piano) at Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday. (Photo: Nick Wons)

He could have been a contender: Stéphane Denève, 46, can parlez-vous, which is mandatory in Montreal and not a bad thing in Toronto. In reality, this Frenchman is setting up housekeeping with the St. Louis Symphony in 2019. This might at least make him available for occasional quality guest appearances such as the one he made Wednesday evening with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Roy Thomson Hall.

In a way, it was an easy assignment. Peter Oundjian took Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances to Europe in 2014 after cutting a live recording in 2012. The majority of players probably still have the music in their minds and fingers.

Not that Denève was content to let the lavish score play itself. Rachmaninoff’s curious anti-tempo marking of “non allegro” was scrupulously observed in the first movement, where rich colours conspired with weighty strong beats to create an impressive, even monumental effect. Dynamic curves and well-chosen pauses kept monotony at bay.

There were a few interesting balances, including a soft-pedalled saxophone solo that seemed entangled with the woodwind lines usually kept in the background. Never would I have expected to draw a comparison between Rachmaninoff’s rich tapestry and the sinewy opening minutes of The Rite of Spring.

The macabre waltz that is the second movement was too slow; this dance was truly for the dead. Still, there was a vivid solo by concertmaster Jonathan Crow and the warmth of the TSO strings assured our general satisfaction. Brass were stellar in the finale, whether insinuating at quiet volumes or speaking forthrightly in fanfares. But picking favourites was not easy. The orchestra sounded like a virtuoso unit in every way.

Inon Barnatan (Photo: Nick Wons)
Inon Barnatan (Photo: Nick Wons)

Of course, a good conductor helps, even a slightly flamboyant one. A tall man, Denève keeps busy on the podium, sometimes using his left hand to sweep back his curly maestro mane. He was an active presence also before intermission in a performance of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 that seemed less than the sum of its parts.

Inon Barnatan (jumping in for the indisposed Lars Vogt) is certainly a player with ideas. Even in the imposing opening cadenza of this masterpiece there were surprising dips of volume and hints of the introspective Brahms who composed Intermezzi for solo piano.

Yet the projection seemed less than ideally bold and a few misfires left us wondering if this Israeli was striving too self-consciously to summon up detail. All the same, the treble birdsong of the finale was brilliant and there were tender moments in the Andante. The TSO strings can really sustain a whisper.

Joseph Johnson comported himself warmly in the cello solos that function as bookends in this movement. This TSO principal ended up joining Barnatan in a generous encore, the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata. It was lovingly done.

There was a healthy crowd on hand. They had to wait a long time for the Brahms to start, as Barnatan withheld his go-ahead nod to Denève for no reason that was apparent from my seat. The repeat on Thursday starts at 2 p.m. Just in case you lost your ticket for the Blue Jays home opener.

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis has been the classical music critic of the Montreal Gazette since 1986 and wrote for the National Post 2010-2016. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Ludwig Van. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto.
Arthur Kaptainis
Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis has been the classical music critic of the Montreal Gazette since 1986 and wrote for the National Post 2010-2016. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Ludwig Van. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto.
Arthur Kaptainis
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