In 2015, Russian musicologist Natalia Braginskaya was rooting around the St Petersburg Conservatory Library when she came across a 12-minute piece by a 26-year-old Igor Stravinsky, written in homage to his venerated teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. When news of the discovery of the Chant funèbre (Funeral Song) reached the classical music world, a near-revolution of excitement took place.

Ludovic Morlot © Chris Lee
Ludovic Morlot
© Chris Lee

Ludovic Morlot’s West Coast première of the Funeral Song with the Seattle Symphony this past weekend was equally exhilarating, especially when programmed with the local première of György Ligeti’s intricately difficult Violin Concerto, performed by award-winning violinist Augustin Hadelich, and Mozart’s sublime Symphony no. 39 in E flat major. All in all, another example of the French maestro’s flair for the uniquely unusual in his programming.

The Ligeti concerto was written in 1992. The arresting five-movement work is filled with surprises: scordatura tuning for two of the principal strings, shocking to the ear when juxtaposed with normal pitches in the orchestra; a chorus of strikingly dissonant ocarina passages played by members of the woodwind section; and other sonic elements evocative of the composer’s Hungarian roots, especially the string quartets of Ligeti’s compatriot, Béla Bartók.

It takes astonishing virtuosity to tackle this concerto; without doubt Hadelich was up to the task. The former Wunderkind is a stunning performer. Technically proficient, polished and refined in his approach, he displayed a fiery temperament in the more spectacular passagework and plumbed the depths and soaring heights of his Ex-Kiesewatter Stradivarius violin with dazzling aplomb. Morlot and his chamber-size orchestra provided skillful support to Hadelich’s brilliance with an accompaniment that was organically integrated into the soloist’s performance. Each musician gave a thoughtful, well-balanced rendering of his or her individual part, and adeptly contributed to the ensemble’s overall cohesive sound.

Hadelich cemented his status as a first-class violin virtuoso by serenading the thrilled audience with an encore of Paganini’s Caprice no. 21 in A major. This tour de force from the traditional repertoire, among the most difficult of the 24, is one of the ultimate tests of a violinist’s mettle. Hadelich demonstrated his grasp of the difficulties and his ability to surmount them with great flair. Paganini’s long-rumored association with the Devil is often thought to be the source behind his god-like abilities on the violin. No such association is needed for Hadelich; he is simply a prodigious artist of the highest order, who wears his virtuosity with ease.

Stravinsky himself did not know what had become of the music for Chant funèbre, but he made it known that he was quite enamored of the piece. It may not have been his most outstanding work, but it did open an intriguing window into the composer’s later, more brilliant compositions. After its première at a memorial concert for Rimsky-Korsakov in St Petersburg in 1909, the piece, which Stravinsky called “the best of my works before The Firebird”, was lost in the shuffle during the Russian Revolution. Over a century later, Braginskaya found a set of orchestral parts for the music in the Conservatory library. Valery Gergiev gave the work's modern première with the Mariinsky Orchestra in December 2016.

For some listeners, the piece shows primarily the influence of Wagner. For me, it is more reminiscent of the more somber episodes of Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina, with some Wagnerian overtones and a hint of Firebird, particularly in the mysterious opening introductory passages. In his rendering, Morlot brought out the grim, funereal ambiance of the piece, but still made it sound lush, fresh and new, despite its late 19th-century leanings. The orchestra responded with equal fervor, creating a powerful, magisterial sound.

Mozart’s Symphony no. 39 provided a logical segue and a soothing contrast to the first two works. Ligeti's reverence for Mozart connected the two composers; Leonard Bernstein found an “essence of Mozart” in Stravinsky’s works. The E flat major symphony, written in 1788 after the première of Don Giovanni, is perhaps one of the most joyous, mellow and expansive of Mozart’s late symphonies.

Morlot clearly felt a closeness to – and affinity for – the work, heightening the grandiose qualities that captured the imagination of listeners at Mozart’s memorial concert in Hamburg in 1792. After the intense control required in the two previous pieces, Morlot just let the orchestra play, enjoying the rhythmic and melodic suppleness of the music. He brought out but did not overemphasize, the Don Giovanni-like dotted rhythms of the opening Adagio, brought expansive breadth to the noble Andante con moto, and ended with a couple of charming lighthearted flourishes in the fourth movement Allegro.

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