This concert by members of the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne conducted by Fabien Gabel juxtaposed works representing two contrasting styles that, even though nearly contemporaneous with one another, represented vastly different musical visions.

Fabien Gabel, Vilde Frang and the Gürzenich Orchester Köln
© Gürzenich Orchester Köln

Stravinsky's Violin Concerto in D major was the neoclassical choice for the program, featuring soloist Vilde Frang who brought great technical prowess and flawless intonation to her performance. From the startling "signature chord" that opens this movement (and the others as well), Frang emphasized Stravinsky's sometimes crunchy dissonances along with his spiky rhythms, with Gabel and the Cologne musicians matching her pyrotechnics measure for measure. As sinewy as the opening Toccata was, it was in the two middle movements (both titled Aria) that the soul of the concerto came to the fore; this was the case in the third movement particularly. A spirited Capriccio capped off the concerto, with playful woodwinds (particularly bassoons and flutes) paralleling the skittering violin. Towards the end of the concerto, the short "dueling violins" segment between the soloist and the concertmaster was particularly effective.

Vilde Frang and the Gürzenich Orchester Köln
© Gürzenich Orchester Köln

Bookending the Stravinsky were two pieces firmly planted in the realm of romanticism – and while there are some clear stylistic differences between the Korngold and Schreker compositions performed, they do share similarities in the tuneful percussion and keyboard instruments employed (celesta, bells, harmonium, piano). Korngold's Much Ado about Nothing Suite dates from 1918 and consists of five movements from the original 14 selections written as incidental music to Shakespeare's play. In the sprightly Overture, conductor Gabel imbued the music with an infectious swagger. As for The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber, the horn and the cello passages were particularly winsome, reminding us that this particular maiden, while possibly virginal, is also quite worldly-wise. The quirky little March had sinister undertones, but the Garden Scene Intermezzo was nothing but rapture, with a gorgeous harp, cello and violin joined by the murmuring of the orchestra. In the Hornpipe finale – fabulous horns – I might have wished for a slightly quicker tempo, but what sounded a little plodding at first was made right in the end as Gabel brought the suite to a rousing conclusion.

Gürzenich Orchester Köln
© Gürzenich Orchester Köln

The final work was the Chamber Symphony in One Movement by Franz Schreker. Composed in 1916 for Schreker's fellow teachers at Vienna's Imperial Academy, this explains the rather unusual scoring. Although his musical language wasn't revolutionary, Schreker's personal style was so unique that his music is immediately recognizable. Here, the original complement of eleven string players was doubled, but the performance maintained its chamber-like character even as the lushness of Schreker's score shone through. The hallucinatory opening saw Gabel ushering in an unsettled dream sequence and taking it through its various stream-of-consciousness permutations. Little splashes of color were sprinkled throughout the music like dewdrops, while the recurring Leitmotive introduced first by the clarinet and later by the strings served as a kind of musical talisman. Gabel ingeniously navigated Schreker's sea of orchestral colors in a way that preserved the overarching narrative, while also avoiding a flaw that can befall other conductors of this music: making the music sound sickly-sweet or rotten-ripe.

Also on the program was a short composition commissioned by the Gürzenich Orchestra. Scored for brass and percussion, Parade by Frank Pesci contains heaped portions of syncopation and jazz idioms that seem to be de rigueur for contemporary pieces of this kind. The most memorable moment was a direct musical quote from the Jimmie Davis/Johnny Cash song You Are My Sunshine, but the composition failed to make much of an impression otherwise.


This performance was reviewed from the Gürzenich Orchester Köln live video stream