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S & H International Concert Review

Bach, Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor (orchestration by Andrew Davis), Cantata No. 82; Dvorak, Symphony No. 7, San Francisco Symphony, Sir Andrew Davis, conductor; David Daniels, countertenor. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, June 4, 2004 (HS)

Although it has been 20 years since Sir Andrew Davis last led the San Francisco Symphony, he seemed right at home and the orchestra for its part sounded as if it were ready to follow him anywhere. Davis, once conductor of both the BBC and the Toronto symphonies, now music director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, drew rich textures and big climaxes in the big works that opened and closed the evening. Their fireworks and dramatic intensity just made the spare orchestration and otherworldly beauty of countertenor David Daniels' singing in the cantata Ich Habe Genug all the more special.

Opening with a flourish, Davis introduced his own orchestration of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. Bach wrote it for organ and Davis, himself an organist when he was a student at the Royal College of Music, is only the most recent to transcribe the piece for a full-scale symphony orchestra. Most famously, Respighi and Stokowski found the work's dense textures irresistible, making big romantic fantasies of it.

These are the first performances of Davis' version which, on first hearing, seems more concerned with reflecting the sort of voice mixing that organists use to put their own stamp on a performance. The first statement of the eight-bar passacaglia theme, for example, is sounded by piano, played staccato, and cellos, bowed pianissimo. The sonic effect is like a strobe flashing against a misty background. The instrumental combinations change with each of Bach's 20 variations, first tossing the theme between the cellos and basses, weaving the counterpoint through the bass clarinet and bassoons, moving into the higher woodwinds, doubling them with the harp, and finally getting to the high strings. Eventually, the brass enters in a sustained passage that feels like a contrapuntal chorale, and the passacaglia reaches a mighty climax that shakes the hall like an organ at full tilt.

Davis' orchestration through the complex fugue, which is based upon the same eight-bar theme as the passacaglia, is just as colorful. At times I was put in mind of Webern's extraordinary transcription of the Ricercare à 6, except that Webern tosses the ball from instrument to another in mid-phrase where Davis takes a more organic approach. In the brightness and distinctness of instrumental color, Davis' transcription is almost athletic, like a dancer taking ever more audacious leaps. The San Francisco Symphony responded to the conductor's almost manic podium style with playing of uncommon precision, building to an enormous finish.

Considerably smaller forces -- four violins, two violas and cellos, a bass, a harpsichord and a solo oboist -- gave the Bach cantata an immediate sense of intimacy. That was perfect for Daniels, whose silken voice and supple phrasing gave the arias a shimmer few vocalists can match. His unerring intonation and free, easy coloratura make the music feel totally natural, and his sound is so pure and creamy that one easily forgets that this is a man singing in falsetto.

Davis kept things moving without any sense of rushing. William Bennett, the Symphony's principal oboe, invested the wonderful opening melody with a quietly soulful turn and then, as Daniels picked it up, spun gorgeous arabesques around the countertenor's sustained lines. In the slower second aria, Daniels made the successive repetitions of Schlummert ein ("Slumber now") float ever higher, not in pitch but in the delicacy of touch, and in the final aria, Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod ("I look with joy to my death") the interplay between voice and oboe in the contrasting middle section was nothing short of exquisite.

Moving from Bach to Dvorak could be jarring, but the Symphony No. 7 is dark Dvorak, minor-key, tragic Dvorak, more evocative of an ominous forest than the wide-open spaces of his more often-played works, and it balanced well with the opening C-minor Bach on this program. Davis threw himself into the music, and if some of the pages went by with less inflection than one could hope for, the finale built to an inexorable climax.

Davis has an eye-catching presence on the podium. He makes big gestures and there's a certain athleticism in his body movements. The result sometimes ramps up the music with more voltage than might be necessary, but it's never dull. This program was completely satisfying.

Harvey Steiman


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