It was a rare performance by the Toronto Symphony tonight, inspired by guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda and the presence of soprano Adrianne Pieczonka. I can’t recall the last time they played with so much commitment, going back over decades of listening, a concert with several highlights whether you’re a fan of vocal music or pure symphonic repertoire.
Noseda & Pieczonka gave us a very subtle reading of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, after the TSO gave us Casella’s Italia. The contrast was quite marked, between the musical vernacular on display in the Casella and the more rarefied language of the songs. Noseda extracted a wonderfully unpretentious & boisterous opening that made the Strauss sound like chamber music in comparison.
Noseda’s tempi on the night were wonderfully energetic. In the songs I’d say we were going faster in all four than, for example, the George Szell recording with Schwarzkopf. Frühling was a reading of subtle mystery—or so it seemed after Italia—with a marked delicacy to Pieczonka’s sound. Even ascending to her high B she was floating her sound against a shimmering orchestral backdrop, her sound easily heard but wonderfully restrained. For September the voice emerged from the orchestra like a jewel against velvet. A fuller sound opened Beim Schlafengehen, leading us to Jonathan Crow’s magisterial solo, ascending like the soul itself, followed confidently by the soprano’s voice. She did not push out the last notes as some do – “zu leben”—but thoughtfully intoned them, seeming to be moved (I am sure I saw her dab her eye at this point, at which point i lost it). And Im Abendrot brought us home with further restraint. To this point I was a bit confused about Noseda, having heard his raucous approach to the opening piece followed by the most subtly conducted Strauss Four Last songs I’ve ever encountered.
After intermission it was time for something completely different. I saw we were to get the “Prelude and Liebestod”: ostensibly from Tristan und Isolde, but actually two pieces usually done as a single piece. We began with Noseda leading the orchestra and no soprano on stage. Hm I wondered how that was going to work, but forgot the question in the outpouring of sound from the TSO. As you may have noticed before, I far prefer quick readings of Wagner which I understand to be more authentic than the lugubrious readings some have attempted, that were for a time fashionable in the 20th century. Give me Luisi instead of Levine, Bohm rather than Karajan. For me the Tristan prelude was the musical highlight of the evening.
And then as we came to the last page of the score, Isolde –that is, Pieczonka—wandered onto the stage looking mildly despondent, but finding a more joyful expression as she unexpectedly began to sing with no introduction, just the abrupt modulation from the prelude (an impressive feat in and of itself). Pieczonka sang with the confidence of a true hochdramatiche, showing no signs of distress whatsoever. While we shouldn’t mistake this + the 4 songs for a full Isolde, and an indication that she’d find it easy, I do believe Pieczonka could undertake the role. The orchestra on the Roy Thomson Hall stage is not the same as an orchestra in a pit, which would be more subdued in its sound, especially if the conductor for that occasion were mindful of his Isolde. This time? Noseda did not overwhelm his singer, but did draw a big full sound from the TSO. Does Pieczonka need to undertake this role? Good question. The sound she makes is magnificent in so many roles in several languages; she doesn’t need to attempt Everest, welcome as it might be to hear her assay such roles.
Noseda followed with a crisp & energetic reading of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, drawing exquisite playing from the TSO. At times we were in a place of wild abandon, and so I didn’t mind a couple of fluffs, considering the emotional commitment, the rhythmic vitality of the playing, and the sharply delineated features Noseda was able to etch into the sound. It’s a great reminder to me of what this orchestra can do, after having heard Beethoven from Tafelmusik and Wagner from the COC’s orchestra. It’s the best TSO performance I’ve heard in awhile.
The program will be repeated Saturday March 14th at 8:00 p.m.