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Shouts and Whispers

Jones Hall
04/29/2011 -  and Apr 30, May 1, 2011
Sergei Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78
Richard Wagner: Parsifal: Prelude
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird: Suite (1919 version)

Jane Dutton (mezzo-soprano)
Houston Symphony & Chorus, Mark Wigglesworth (conductor)

M. Wigglesworth (© CM Artists, New York)

In his Houston Symphony debut, Mark Wigglesworth presented a program of three magnificent works in a nontraditional manner. He took the audience on a journey from the grandiose realism of the Prokofiev cantata through the spiritual innigkeit of the Wagner excerpt to the extroverted nationalism of Stravinsky's fame-making early ballet. Wigglesworth presented strong, full-blooded interpretations of the outer works and revealed a sensitive command of shape and sonority in the Parisfal prelude.

Through his Shostakovich symphony cycle on disc, Wigglesworth has shown himself as an impressively sympathetic conductor of twentieth century Russian works. Much like those CDs, the conductor directed a taut, forthright Alexander Nevsky, with finely polished playing from the orchestra and excellent, robust singing from the chorus. The tempo contrasts in the second movement were nicely handled and matched by an intensification of the different sections' timbal focuses. "Arise, Ye Russian People" was a bit quick for my taste, and the exaggerated agogic accent at the recapitulation was too much, but the response from the chorus and orchestra was beyond reproach. The subtle, perfectly gauged accelerando after the introduction of "The Battle on the Ice" led to a spine-tingling climax, the chorus holding nothing back in their battle cries and the brass and percussion adding to the riotous sound with aplomb. Jane Dutton's procession onto stage during the introduction to "The Field of the Dead" distracted from the beauty of the passage, and her repeated low entries were less than ideally secure, never quite achieving the aching, rich mahogany tone of the great Russian mezzos and altos who have sung this. Higher in her register, she had impressive control and an excellent sense of phrasing. In all, Wigglesworth reveled in the dark side of Prokofiev's orchestration. His decision to have the double basses adjacent to the low brass on stage ensured unity in sound and a powerful contribution from the low end, above which were poised solidly balanced chords and finely coordinated overlapping figures in the remainder of the orchestra. Nevsky is always a wonder to hear, and this performance matched the inspiration of the music with interpretive and orchestral acumen.

The success of the Prokofiev performance might have been a curse, as the remainder of the concert struggled to live up to the spectacle. Indeed, the order of pieces was an odd choice, and it seemed clear that the audience simply didn't know what to make of the Parsifal prelude, despite its lush and ably-sculpted execution. The work is too profound to serve as a mere intermezzo, which is how it seemed to function in the program. It might have been a wiser idea simply to use Stravinsky's more inclusive 1945 suite from The Firebird instead of the condensed 1919 version.

That said, the performance of the suite from the audacious early ballet had many excellent moments. The playing of the orchestra was consistently fine, from the lovingly played oboe and bassoon solos to the raucously zealous precision of the massed orchestral forces. I was less convinced by Wigglesworth's interpretive stance here than in the Prokofiev. Rubato in the princess' round dance seemed forced and needlessly exaggerated, and the overall tempos of both the lullaby and finale, and particularly the magical transition in between, seemed rushed and anxious. Wigglesworth must be commended for restarting the piece after a mobile phone in the audience interrupted the haunting introduction.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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