Every once in a while, as a blogger, you are so utterly transfixed by a performance that it becomes an incredible effort to wrench yourself back into reality in order to put pen to paper, such is the visceral impact. And so it was with Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley’s performance of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
The PSO has a terrific concertmaster in Bendix-Balgley who can hold his own with a piece like the Scottish Fantasy. It’s not just the concertmaster getting up and playing something solo. It’s a very technically demanding piece that he really plays beautifully.
Guest conductor, and also a prominent violinist today, Nikolaj Znaider is not a stranger to the PSO. Having soloed many times with the PSO and having previously conducted them, there is clear communication and understanding between conductor and ensemble. Znaider had prepared the orchestra in terms of style quite thoroughly. There is a unique connection with Znaider as conductor and Noah as soloist. Znaider offered much uniqueness to the performance as he knows the piece so well. Znaider has performed the Fantasy here with the PSO, but one cannot compare the interpretations. Znaider and Bendix-Balgley did not impose their views on one another; rather they met and found their piece together. Of course, sometimes there are distinct impulses that come from the conductor or from the soloist, but in general it has to be a musical dialogue—wordless, that takes place on stage, and that is what did take place.
The context for the fantasy, logically placed in the first half of the concert, had been set with an earlier piece by a composer whose piece also had Scottish influences: Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave). The concert began with the Mendelssohn. With the orchestra cascading into the opening it was a chance for them to demonstrate the style that Znaider had cultivated in their playing. Despite some tempi feeling daringly swift, it was an entertainingly dramatic rendition nevertheless. The Hebrides Overture is a fun piece—a stand-alone concert piece inspired from Mendelssohn’s trip to Fingal’s Cave, and you do hear the sounds of the ocean. It is a very evocative and programmatic piece, that has a geographical setting that really takes hold of your senses. You really do sense the waves crashing in, and there is highly charged drama in the music which comes from nature.
The Scottish Fantasy has a brooding opening—very cinematic and gloomy, and then a happy ending full of Scottish tunes. Bendix-Balgley entered the piece seamlessly—his bow gliding into the already sonority of sound. Harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen was front stage also, as the harp plays an important role in bringing the fantasy to life. Unlike Mendelssohn who actually visited Scotland for the inspiration of The Hebrides, Bruch didn’t visit Scotland before his composition of the Scottish Fantasy. He does use real Scottish tunes, though. Each movement is based on a particular one– all gorgeous. I particularly like the 2nd movement the best.
Artists such as Oistrakh, Menuhin, Kreisler and Heifetz have a personal touch that you can recognize from their first note that they play. Bendix-Balgley portrays his desire and success in that area. Yes, he displays some imitation of these artists in his own playing, but he offers his own unique, special and genuine voice and not just for the sake of being different.
Most of Bruch’s works are forgotten today with the exception of his first violin concerto. But the Scottish Fantasy makes for a close second. Having the fantasy programmed with Mendelssohn, Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in the second half, made for a sort of half Scottish program, but all German. When you put Bruch in that company, you see what quality music he actually wrote.
Schumann’s works put extreme demands on the virtuosity of the orchestra, on the ensemble. It doesn’t forgive the musicians. It is like Haydn on steroids. One really senses how exposed every aspect of his works are. Every little, tiny imprecision becomes noticeable, almost magnified. Schumann is not quite as obvious, but it only works in its highest form when all the little details fall into place. Schumann’s symphonies generally have a bad reputation for orchestra. But, with the PSO and Znaider it was remarkably well done and it worked.