After an exciting tour to Israel and Europe, the Toronto Symphony are back in Canada.
“Back in Toronto eh” could just as easily be “back in Toronto A” given what we heard tonight, a program consisting of a pair of works in A. They’re back home geographically and back home to the same note you always hear when an orchestra tunes up, whether it’s plunked out on the piano –as it was for the piano concerto—or intoned by an oboe, as is more usual.
The orchestra were led in the concerts over the past two nights by their conductor laureate, Sir Andrew Davis, an avuncular figure whose familiar presence on the podium has been a steadying hand on the tiller, a constant for audiences & players alike.
And so the TSO are home: and welcome back.
The two pieces on the program showed us two different approaches from both Davis & the TSO even if the pieces aren’t so very different. Excuse me if I make too much of the contrast, when both pieces were delightful. But I was struck by how professional Davis was and is, how well he adjusted the orchestra to the different requirements in a concerto with a romantic virtuoso and a symphony played in a classical style.
We began with Grieg’s A minor concerto, played by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. This was a reading in the romantic tradition, tempi entirely at the discretion of the soloist, and the orchestra following his every tempo change like Ginger Rogers dancing backwards in high-heels, always keeping up with Fred (or Jean-Efflam).
I merely meant by that comparison that they followed with amazing precision, and no slips.
Bavouzet’s touch emphasizes melodic lines, a wonderful ability to bring out voices and to thereby underline what Grieg was doing in his concerto. It’s always a thrill when a performance lays bare the composer’s structure, showing us the inherent drama in the score. Davis followed diligently, helping to bring out the big moments such as the 2nd movement horn solos, as clearly—and in a kind of dialogue—as those of Bavouzet from the piano keyboard.
And so I wondered if Davis would conduct the Beethoven the same way, given that I’ve heard conductors bring out the romantic side, especially for a flamboyant work such as the Symphony #7 in A. By romantic, I mean for example, to play up the contrasts – as they did in the concerto—and to play fast and loose with tempo.
Beethoven isn’t that many decades away from Grieg, especially when I recall the way some people (for instance Leon Fleisher with George Szell & the Cleveland Orchestra, the recording of the Grieg + the Schumann concerti that I knew best) hewed closer to the classical rather than the romantic tradition, seeking to honour tempi, only making small rubati and avoiding the big crowd pleaser of a finish that you sometimes encounter.
But no, Davis and the TSO gave us something quite different when it came to the Beethoven. This was a performance with a different aesthetic, a kind of integrity. All repeats were honoured, and long passages building up were permitted to be inexorable and gradual rather than mistaking Beethoven for Tchaikovsky and suddenly speeding up for the big finish. This more painstaking approach to the long passages – both in the second movement, the scherzo and the finale made the drama authentic, which is to say, true to Beethoven.
The orchestra seem very relaxed, and in a wonderful groove, playing everything really well, sounding fabulous. I’m so glad they’re back.