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From the Sublime to the Superficial

Jones Hall
03/15/2013 -  and March 16, 17, 2013
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 98 in B-flat Major
William Walton: Belshazzar's Feast

Stephen Powell (baritone)
Houston Symphony Chorus, Houston Symphony, Hannu Lintu (conductor)

H. Lintu (© Sini Pennanen)

A Finnish conductor and a British travelogue created an odd concert full of fine performances. The three works on the program were strange bedfellows, despite the attempt to unify the triptych through provenance. Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, one of the miracles of the string orchestra repertoire, was given a shadowy reading to match the poignant Phrygian inflections of Tallis' melody. With masterful, arched phrasing, Lintu unified the HSO strings and brought out the color and intensity of the score. The climaxes soared and the echo effects were perfectly lontano. The acoustics of Jones Hall kept the largest moments from having the impact that they might have in more resonant space, but this piece is always great to hear live, and the musicians presented it in excellent light.

Haydn's 98th Symphony is a quirky creation, full of dark overtones presented in the first movement's slow introduction, an echo of the dolorous tones of the Vaughan Williams. Lintu played up the dance-like rhythms that permeate the first movement, and choose a zippy tempo for the finale, which gave him ample opportunity to capitalize on Haydn's exaggerated, witty use of silence in the movement. The tender slow movement featured excellent string playing and wind contributions. The unique scoring of the minuet, especially the bassoon doubling in the trio, featured some of the orchestra's finest principals. Indeed, that bassoon solo and the virtuosic oboe solo in the finale's main theme were highlights of the concert. The cheeky tinkling of the harpsichord near the end of the work is always a charming touch, here effectively realized. Lintu thankfully let the trumpets and horns play out when necessary, but some of the louder moments lacked the last ounce of impact, owing mostly to the wooly timpani mallets that were employed. Harder, more articulate sounds would have been welcomed.

While the first half featured a understated, haunting masterpiece and an essay in capricious wit, Walton's Belshazzar's Feast swept aside any attempt at subtlety and cleverness, instead accosting the audience with the composer's technicolor vision of Babylon. The score is unabashedly literal in its representation of the text, and the orchestra exploited its opportunities to portray silver with anvils and gaudy festivities with thrilling antiphonal brass in the balconies. Lintu coordinated the panoply with impressive precision, cuing the brass fanfares in perfect timing and emphasizing the score's jazzy syncopations. The Houston Symphony Chorus was most impressive in loud, homophonic moments, but in some of the contrapuntal passages and in those with exaggerated divisi, individual voices occasionally protruded from the texture. Stephen Powell was in excellent voice in his melodramatic solos, but presented them earnestly with gorgeous, full-blooded tone throughout his entire range. This score is enjoyable to hear every once in a while, but in the end its crassness, and never-ending ending, when set beside the two previous masterpieces, never verge beyond the superficial, even when performed as magisterially as it was here.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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