The past few months have been a celebration of youthful genius at NACO, with a parade of talented twentysomething soloists and conductors taking the stage. In contrast, Monday night’s guest appearance by the Toronto Symphony was all about wisdom, experience and mature development.
After 14 years as music director, Peter Oundjian is leaving the TSO at the end of this season. As he winds down his final concerts, Oundjian and the orchestra have have taken the farewell party to Montreal and Ottawa this week with one hell of a goodbye gift: Bruckner’s colossal Symphony No. 8.
To be more specific, this was the original 1887 version, performed far less frequently than Bruckner’s 1890 revision. If you know the symphony, the differences are noticeable. It’s longer and busier, and the first movement ends with a loud bang instead of a quiet sigh. I’ll leave the Bruckner scholars to argue over whether he improved the work or caved to external opinion.
With the Eighth’s gigantic instrumentation (Three harps! Eight horns! Four Wagner tubas!), the TSO was an impressive sight on the Southam Hall stage. Oundjian divided the first and second violins and placed the double basses to his left (stage right). This may work in other halls, but from my seat I found the sound too bottom-heavy, while the jacked-up brightness from Southam’s acoustic update made for a completely overpowering brass section. We’re talking sinus rattling, movie theatre Dolby, cranked up to 11, guy from the old Maxwell tape ads volume.
Balance issues aside, Oundjian showed himself to be a masterful Bruckner conductor. This Eighth had pathos as well as power, with firm, pellucid structure and impeccable transitions. The Scherzo steamed along with crisp, lethal efficiency, the adrenalin rush building with each brass flourish. Oudjian expertly tended the Adagio at a careful, slow burn, with solemn woodwinds playing against spiritual, strings. The flickering, gossamer ending of that movement made the Valkyrie charge of the finale sound even fiercer.
In the first half, Leon Fleisher proved that age is just a number. The 89-year-old pianist performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 12 with elegance, grace, exquisite voicing, and a plush, noble sound. The thick pedalling and somewhat sedate style may not have been to everyone’s taste, but the sheer luxurious beauty and self-effacing restraint of Fleisher’s playing puts the antics of many pianists one-third his age to shame.