Arts & Events

San Francisco Symphony’s All-French Program

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 06, 2015 - 02:48:00 PM

Three French composers, a French conductor, and a French pianist are all featured in this week’s San Francisco Symphony program, with concerts Wednesday through Friday, November 4-6, at Davies Hall. Yan Pascal Tortelier conducts works by Georges Bizet, Maurice Ravel, and Camille Saint-Saens. Pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is the soloist in Ravel’s remarkable Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand. This work, the highlight of Wednesday evening’s performance, was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. While serving in the Austrian army in World War I, Paul Wittgenstein, a gifted pianist, was wounded and lost his right arm. Undaunted, he set about commissioning piano works for the left hand. He approached Ravel in 1929, and the French composer was delighted by the challenge. 

The resulting Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand is a rare and wonderful masterpiece from Ravel. It has often been cited as one of the two or three best piano concertos of the 20th century. The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music calls it “Dionysian,” and many listeners find in it a dark, almost sinister quality. Ravel opens the work with cellos and basses establishing a growling, sinister mood, while the contrabassoon intones a solemn theme. Low horns introduce a suggestion of “jazz elements” Ravel said he incorporated in this work. While waiting for the piano soloist to begin playing, a crescendo slowly mounts over thirty-two bars of slow music. When the piano enters, it makes a dramatic leap that spans five octaves. Pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet played with Dionysiac frenzy, capping his entrée with a glissando from the bottom A on the keyboard to the top D. As the work progresses, the piano plays a lovely lyrical melody and the orchestra introduces a robust scherzo. In the latter section the piano’s phrases are often capped by “jazzy” horns that come as a surprise at the end of a phrase. Indeed, throughout this work there are many surprising turns, as Ravel never ceases to astonish us, even at times to perplex us. All told, I find Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand to be a far more interesting and arresting work than his two-handed Piano Concerto in G major, which latter is quite tame by comparison. Paul Wittgenstein was the piano soloist in the world premiere of the Left-Hand Concerto in Vienna in 1932; and Wittgenstein was again the soloist when Ravel himself conducted the work in its Paris premiere in 1933. At our San Francisco Symphony performance, pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet gave a bravura interpretation of this great work, and conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier graciously remained in the shadows and was content to let the pianist grab the spotlight.  

However, in the music that opened this all-French program – Music from the Carmen Suites by Georges Bizet – conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier was anything but a shrinking violet. He opened the work by playing the Introduction to Les Toréadors in the loudest, most bombastic manner; and he continued in this vein throughout. Incidentally, I would have much preferred to hear Bizet’s Suites from L’Arlésienne, which were originally scheduled on this program. No reason was given for the switch to the Carmen Suites, but the choice most certainly was Tortelier’s. Perhaps he wanted to make a bigger splash. Certainly, his conducting style in the Carmen Suites was flamboyant enough to draw everyone’s attention to the conductor, though the musical results tended to bring out the bombastic elements in this music. Only the dreamy Intermezzo and the softly subtle Seguedilla were played with restraint under Tortelier’s aggressive leadership. 

After intermission, the Symphony returned to perform Camille Saint-Saens’s Symphony No. 3 in C minor, the Organ Symphony. This work, dedicated “To the memory of Franz Liszt,” premiered in London in 1886, and was an immediate success. Dubbed the Organ Symphony because of its prominent use of the organ, this symphony has an unusual structure. Divided into two main parts, it opens with a brief Adagio that is quiet in mood, faintly suggesting Wagner’s influence. Then an Allegro moderato theme is introduced that echoes the familiar strains of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. The resemblance is so striking it has to be intentional. Much is made of this theme, which undergoes thematic transformations before ultimately giving way to a lovely slow section, marked Poco adagio, where the organ makes its first, modest entrance by simply adding to the languorous texture of this Tristan-esque music.  

The Organ Symphony’s second part opens with a scherzo. Indeed, there are several scherzo-with-trio alternations here. Suddenly, a fugue subject is suggested by the lowest instruments in the orchestra. Saint-Saens builds up the tension, as two pianos issue volleys of scales and the orchestra unleashes a crescendo. Then a sudden hush prevails as the high strings tentatively play the fugue subject in canon form. Cellos and basses chime in, playing pianissimo, with the basses plucking softly in pizzicato. The hush deepens as the notes die away. Suddenly, the organ enters with a grandiose C major chord, bolting the audience upright in our seats. This C major chord is repeated several times in quick succession, reverberating with a shock effect, as the orchestra plays a melodious theme. There ensues a chorale played by the strings as they develop a theme from the work’s opening movement. Two pianos add arpeggios, and the organ takes up the chorale, as the brass, timpani and cymbals perform fanfares between the organ’s phrases. The fugue material again surfaces and its counterpoint is fully developed, leading into a melody in the strings that is almost operatic. Saint-Saens then builds to a final climax of glorious fast-tempo C major majesty, as conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier ended the work with a flamboyant flourish.