HSO & Simone Porter Impress With Prokofiev And Tchaikovsky

03.11.16
Simone Porter
Hartford Courant

The Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major by Sergei Prokofiev has an innocent and inviting opening that draws many conductors toward it, only to dash them as the music turns corners into its maze of complexities and ambiguities. It is a thick, tangled work of long-spun melodies and spontaneous, complicated rhythms. But you will be very lucky if you hear a better live performance of this fabulous work.

This symphony also has orchestral colors in its bass register that are distinct and memorable. These colors used to be something of a trade secret among Prokofiev fans. But in the pre-concert lecture, Kuan drew attention to the unusual bass writing in this symphony by talking with the HSO's long-time principal tuba player Stephen B. Perry. Perry gave insights into the way that the tuba contributes to this symphony; it is so varied and frequently heard that he described its presence as being almost "concerto-like" for the instrument.

Many listeners were able to focus on these colors as a result of this talk, and they discovered bass lines colored by contrabassoon, piano, trombones and a host of other instruments in clever dialogue.

Throughout the performance, the brass playing sizzled. The section cut through at all the right times, the secco trumpet playing in the second movement was crisp and edged, and the low brass produced glowing colors. Woodwind solos were perfectly balanced and vivid, and the orchestral strings mastered the challenging textures and rhythms that shift gears relentlessly.

The young violin soloist Simone Porter joined the orchestra for this staple of the concerto literature. Porter lit the work in thoughtful colors and brought fierceness to the finale that made it sing in thrilling intensity. She received thunderous applause and a lengthy standing ovation, and people were still resonating in the hallways long after the music had finished.

The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto has a recorded performance history that makes any interpretation a sorting of intentions, only some of which are from the composer. Many performance practices have become attached to this concerto by its legion of performers that were never sanctioned by the composer. These changes to the score itself were made for various reasons, but most simply because they are more showy. Porter had given careful consideration to these practices and most often played the notes that Tchaikovsky asked for, avoiding almost all of the flashy alternatives. Interestingly, she did take the so-called "Auer cuts," which are a collection of measures in the third movement that are often not played because the violinist Leopold Auer claimed that he had the composer's blessing for the cuts.

Porter received a sweet and very memorable muted tone from her violin to open the second movement, and her lyrical sensibility was convincing. The virtuoso passages were thrilling to hear and appeared effortless when she delivered them.

No matter. The Tchaikovsky was thrilling, and the Prokofiev fifth symphony was the kind of detailed performance one remembers.

Read the rest of the review here