Ask your average concertgoer about Alban Berg and you’ll undoubtedly get the same response: isn’t it atonal, avant-garde, and generally rather incomprehensible? This commonly-held perception is unfair, especially regarding his Violin Concerto, which is positively Mahlerian in its lush romanticism. This comparison is no accident, given that the concerto was composed in memory of Manon Gropius, Alma Mahler’s daughter who died an untimely death at age eighteen. Programmed with Rachmaninov’s sweepingly romantic Second Symphony, I doubt that anyone left the concert worried about the avant-garde.

Karina Canellakis © Werner Kmetitsch
Karina Canellakis
© Werner Kmetitsch

The concert opened rather more Classically, with Mozart’s overture to Die Zauberflöte. Karina Canellakis conducted the Vancouver Symphony in an elegantly poised account, the reduced string section playing with transparent clarity and the all-important brass chords articulated finely. That elegance did, however, come at the expense of visceral excitement, feeling pleasant but tepid.

After a few pages of the concerto, I was worried that the same descriptors might apply to Karen Gomyo’s playing. Nearly covered by the orchestra in a few key passages, Gomyo’s pretty but compact tone is worlds away from the Germanic tone of many interpreters of the concerto. Thankfully, there was little to worry about. Gomyo’s emphasis on beautiful sound worked wonderfully in the lyrical passages of the first movement, effectively suggesting Manon Gropius’ beauty and innocence. A beautifully paced scherzando section contrasted effectively, Canellakis bringing down the orchestra’s volume to allow the whimsy of the music to shine through. Less successful was the second movement, whose vehement mood contrasts with the lyricism of the first. Despite impeccable technique and clean articulation, Gomyo frequently struggled to be heard. Part of this must be attributed to Canellakis, who conducted with rather too much gusto, particularly when percussion was involved. Berg’s incorporation of a Bach chorale is one of the most striking moments in his oeuvre, but this got lost in the complex and thick textures.

Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony remains one of the composer’s more popular works, thanks to its sweeping melodies and lush orchestration. Running at nearly an hour, it is easy for the piece to seem schmaltzy and saccharine. Canellakis avoided this with a more understated approach, opting for swift tempi and minimal indulgence, yet still eliciting the wall of sound required for Rachmaninov’s overwhelmingly emotional orchestration to make an effect. The performance of the first movement was the weakest, coming across as well-paced and controlled but missing a sense of flexibility that gives the movement its ebb and flow. A few fluffed woodwind solos aside, the orchestra was on top form, particularly in the Wagnerian brass solos in the development. The same issues were present to an extent in the finale, conducted with great enthusiasm but lacking in atmospheric contrast.

It was left to the middle two movements to make an effect, and what an effect they made! The second movement Scherzo was taken at a faster tempo than usual, sounding positively Mahlerian in the diabolical Dies irae brass chorale. This contrasted brilliantly with the lyrical second theme, taken just a touch slower and played with satisfyingly molten sound. The central fugal section suffered from Canellakis’ swift tempo, with messy entrances and very nearly coming apart at times. All was forgiven though with the third movement, the long clarinet solo taken daringly slowly and softly, with scarce an audible breath to be heard. Canellakis drew an incredibly rich, full sound from the string section, all the while allowing for the harmonic suspensions to be heard. Her interpretation achieved a fine balance between expressiveness and indulgence, particularly at the final C major climax. Such was the effect of the movement that it elicited spontaneous applause – a fine testament to Rachmaninov’s mastery of visceral human emotion.