Along with unveiling a world premiere by composer Agata Zubel, the Seattle Symphony continued its ongoing Beethoven cycle with a rhapsodic contribution by soloist Inon Barnatan at the keyboard.
Encountering the new and unexpected can enrich how we listen to the classics: That’s been one of the underlying ideas so far this season in the Seattle Symphony’s ongoing cycle of the complete symphonies and piano concertos of Beethoven.
Season two of the cycle began last month with Beethoven’s First and Eighth Symphonies framing a freshly commissioned work — a symphony in all but name — by London-based composer Gabriel Prokofiev. On Thursday night music director Ludovic Morlot and the SSO combined the Second Symphony and Third Piano Concerto of Beethoven with a fascinating brand-new orchestral piece by the Polish composer Agata Zubel, titled “In the Shade of an Unshed Tear.”
Zubel belongs to the tradition of the composer/performer and is also a singer acclaimed for the extraordinary versatility of her soprano. New music aficionados in Seattle have had several opportunities to experience Zubel during the “Icebreaker” Festivals presented by the Seattle Chamber Players. Three years ago Zubel, 38, received first prize from the International Music Council’s International Rostrum of Composers — a very impressive achievement in the field of contemporary composition — and she has now added to the impressive list of new Seattle Symphony commissions under Morlot’s tenure.
Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Program repeats 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; tickets from $22 (206-215-4700 or seattlesymphony.org).
While Zubel’s best-known pieces feature a cocktail of chamber ensemble, electronics and her own immediately recognizable voice, “In the Shade of an Unshed Tear” is a purely instrumental score. Color plays a key role in her strikingly original soundscapes, so Zubel faced the challenge in this commission of restricting her palette to the forces of the classical orchestra typically used by Beethoven — with a little stretching (as Beethoven himself did in his Fifth and Ninth) to include piccolo and contrabassoon.
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The range outlined by those last two instruments frame, from the stratosphere to the lower depths, hints at the fierce extremities of Zubel’s arresting new score: polarities of abrupt statement and lingering afterthought, clustered activity and near-immobility, full-on outburst and sputterings on the threshold of audibility. Zubel also gives a prominent role to the timpanist (executed with élan by Matt Decker) and uses her classical orchestra with prodigious craft to generate a spectrum of decidedly unclassical sonorities.
Despite her poetic title, Zubel says she had no program in mind. Her music is uncompromising, like the language of Samuel Beckett (which inspired her prizewinning “Not I”), and Morlot elicited a Beckett-like sense of deferred expectations, rich in theatrical gesture and pointing ever beyond the horizon.
After Zubel’s bold handling of the orchestra came a program of bold Beethoven on the cusp, spellbound by what Mozart and Haydn had achieved but ambitious to push the limits of classical language still further. Local audiences who have admired Inon Barnatan’s pianism in recent years at Seattle Chamber Music Society concerts will have delighted in hearing the Israeli pianist bring the intimacy and refinement of his chamber playing to the Benaroya stage for the first time. His account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor brimmed with rhapsodic poetry — nowhere more so than in the Elysian slow movement — gaining characterful detail in his close interaction with the Seattle Symphony winds.
Never mannered, Barnatan’s hallmark gossamer touch deepened the sense of soulful introspection. He added surprise to the familiar score, as in the sudden launch of the finale’s theme, an abrupt, from-the-wings interruption of the dream just spun. The last movement from Beethoven’s Sonata No. 6 in F major was Barnatan’s spirited encore.
It’s been immensely rewarding to observe Morlot’s growing confidence and sense of authority with the Beethoven canon. The relatively neglected Second Symphony, which filled out the program’s second half, encompassed a flowing, Mozartian lyricism in its slow movement and outrageous humor in the finale — Beethoven out-Haydning Haydn. Inspiring some of Morlot’s most thrillingly risk-taking instincts in the outer movements, the sweep and energy of Beethoven’s invention remained at the center of this performance, making the Eroica seem less a gigantic leap forward than a continuation.