After having spent the last three weeks immersed in the music of 19th and 20th centuries, tonight’s program had the San Francisco Symphony cast themselves into the more distant 17th and 18th centuries, featuring the works of Rameau, Biber, Haydn and Beethoven. The highlight of the night was the impressive fingerwork of Ingrid Fliter in Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D major, with Pablo Heras-Casado leading the orchestra into a brilliant overall performance. The concert as a whole, however, was not an unmitigated triumph.

Pablo Heras-Casado © Fernando Sancho
Pablo Heras-Casado
© Fernando Sancho
Rameau’s Pygmalion is a single-act stage work – an acte de ballet – which he wrote in 1748. Tonight, we were treated to a suite assembled by Heras-Casado. Each movement was thoroughly enjoyable on its own, but of particular note was the gracefulness of the Ouverture, with its rapid repeated notes, depicting the sculptor chiselling away, wonderfully kept in unity by the orchestra without compromising on a vivid contrast in dynamics throughout. The Air (Très lent) which touches upon each one of the French court dances was also notable with the orchestra changing tempos and moods according to each dance with admirable synchrony. The final contradanse was a sprightly one, which was reflected in Heras-Casado’s enthusiastic vigor as he successfully brought out the waves of contrast between themes.

The small-scale orchestra was joined for Haydn's concerto by soloist Ingrid Fliter. Her stage presence was unpretentious, and she exuded a lively confidence as she began the Vivace movement. The selected tempo felt just right, not so slow that it was dragging and not so fast that it was unsteady. Fliter’s fingerwork at all times showed technical assurance, and her trills and scalic runs were clearly articulated despite the fast nature of this movement. The un poco adagio is an elegant lyrical movement, during which the orchestra showed great restraint and never overpowered the piano lines. However, this movement felt a little watercoloured, sandwiched as it was between two animated ones. Perhaps due to such a different mood being asked of the performers, there was a lack of genuine expressiveness, which resulted in a rather play-it-through feel. The third movement, which displayed a Hungarian Gypsy folk dance, was an absolute delight, both from Fliter’s technical mastery and the orchestra’s deftness. The folk undertones were very much felt, particularly as the music moved into a D minor tonality, with accents and trills played with satisfying accuracy, not at all losing the energy that characterises the movement.

As the lights dimmed for the second half of the concert, ten orchestra members walked on to the stage with their instruments to play Biber’s Battalia à 9. À 9 – meaning in 9 parts – refers to the maximum number of musical lines, without counting the continuo part (thus sometimes titled Battalia à 10 to include it). The musicians stood forming a semi-circle with Heras-Casado conducting from the centre, which gave the performance some appreciated intimacy. Their rendition of this piece was wholly enjoyable and evocative, but there were several moments of particular note. One was the foot-stomping of the musicians in the opening Sonata movement, adding to the col legno effect. The next movement, Die liederliche gesellschafft von allerley Humor (The Dissolute Company with All Kinds of Humor) sounds atypical of Biber’s time, with the dissonances created from eight popular songs being played at the same time. Kudos to the musicians for staying together despite the apparent “un-togetherness” of the movement. Also notably engaging was the Die Schlacht (The Battle), with powerfully plucked pizzicatos from the double bass as if to shoot cannons into the battlefield.

After three well-delivered performances, it was unfortunate that the Beethoven Symphony no. 2 in D major fell rather flat. Perhaps it was the lateness into the night, but overall there were wobbly moments where tempi weren’t held or notes felt out of sync. The first movement started out strongly, but as it lurched into the Allegro, one could not help but feel that the tempo picked was a touch too fast; perhaps the cause for some of the instrumental entries being less accurate. There was also at least one occasion where the bowing of the strings wasn’t coordinated. In the Larghetto the unity was more or less restored, but there were still inconsistencies, with some of the staccatos with being sharper than others. The final two movements had the same lack of coordination, and overall the symphony finished with what felt like a compromised half-hearted effort.

While this program offered some amazing performances, their rather clumsy closing performance of Beethoven’s symphony makes it hard to give their program a glowing review.