The concert entitled “Titanesque,” presented on Friday 9 March 2018 by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo allows us to take stock of the progress made by conductor Kazuki Yamada two years into his tenure as Music Director. The cleverly-constructed program consisted of two Germanic staples, Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, introduced by Mahler’s infrequently heard Blumine.
Mahler’s andante allegretto known as Blumine can be considered “titanic” in the sense that it was included as the second movement in the first version of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, a work Mahler initially referred to as Titan, as an homage to the novel of the same name by the German romantic writer Jean Paul Richter. After the first three performances of his symphony in 1899, Mahler cut Blumine (which he had recycled from his 1894 incidental music to Der Trompeter von Säckingen), considering that the pastoral interlude it provided only hampered the flow of the other four movements. Yamada led a relaxed reading of the work, allowing the orchestra to shape phrases with flexibility and nuance. The trumpet plays a prominent role in this work, but Gérald Rolland’s able performance came across as somewhat stiff. (Admittedly, he was not helped by Yamada’s awkward suggestion that he stand for his solos, at the beginning and end of the piece, as if Blumine were a trumpet concerto.) Oboist Matthieu Petitjean contributed a ravishing solo in the middle of the work, and harpist Sophia Steckeler provided a sensitive conclusion with her daringly soft harmonics.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, op. 37 is “titanic” in that it belongs to the composer’s turbulent c-minor style of his middle period, epitomized by his Symphony No. 5. Elisabeth Leonskaja was the soloist in a deeply-felt interpretation, demonstrating the qualities that set her apart from more flamboyant Russian soloists such as Evgeny Kissin (featured in a Beethoven recital and a Bartók concerto earlier this season in Monte-Carlo). Leonskaja is an introspective artist who moves her listeners with a warm voicing of chordal passages and an avoidance of an overly percussive articulation. Her playing was not free of occasional inaccuracies, and the coordination with Yamada and the orchestra was not always perfect, but her heartfelt and intense approach overshadowed these details. Leonskaja acknowledged the thunderous applause by a passionate rendering of Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, S. 161, No. 5.
The concert concluded with a performance of Richard Strauss’s indisputably “titanic” Alpine Symphony. It is a thrilling experience to hear this work performed live, if for nothing else than to see such massive forces assembled both onstage and off (for the hunting music that calls for an additional twelve horns, two trumpets and two trombones). But often what distinguishes a great from a merely good performance of this music is the attention given to the soft passages. After all, despite its magnificent climaxes (especially the unforgettable recapitulation of the “Sunrise” theme at the midpoint of the work), the Alpine Symphony is one of the few large-scale orchestral works that both begins and ends with extensive pianissimo sections. The Monte-Carlo musicians were admittedly not helped by the fact that the extremely sensitive playing heard in the recent Monaco visit by the Vienna Philharmonic still echoed in the ears of their listeners, but it was nonetheless disappointing to see that Yamada made no visible attempts to encourage his musicians to show the necessary restraint.
The Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo has long been an ensemble eager to define itself as not just another provincial orchestra, but rather one on par with other outstanding European ensembles. What has held these talented musicians back over the past few decades has been an absence of consistent leadership from the podium. One has the impression that the impressive financial support enjoyed by this orchestra is used mainly for engaging star soloists instead of inspiring conductors, to the detriment of the ensemble’s musical growth. The nomination of Yakov Kreizberg in 2009 marked a welcome turning point, but this gifted musician’s untimely death two years later resulted in Gianluigi Gelmetti returning for a caretaker tenure while searching for a worthy successor to Kreizberg.
With Yamada’s arrival in Fall 2016, the orchestra seems genuinely inspired to play at its best. His greatest talent is his ability to maintain channels of communication during a performance with his key musicians, allowing him to exploit often fleeting moments of inspiration by encouraging these musicians to take musical risks. This strategy bore fruit in this concert in the exceptional playing by Matthis Persson (trumpet, in the Strauss), Julien Bourgeois (tympani, in the Strauss but most notably in the Beethoven), Patrick Peignier (horn, in the Strauss) and Matthieu Petitjean (oboe, throughout the entire concert). One can only hope that Yamada’s youthful exuberance can continue to evolve into a longer and more mature association with his orchestra.