Opening a chamber orchestra season with Wagner, Fauré and Brahms might seem a little contradictory – certainly brave – but the Northwest Sinfonietta pulled off a heavily Romantic symphonic program with panache last Saturday night at the Rialto, including a vociferous John Novacek on piano.
Wagner opened the evening: the prelude to Act III of “Tristan und Isolde,” which is a stop-start, hesitant contrast to the lush Act I prelude more often played in concert. As the music rose up from the somber lower strings to bleak upper chords, director Christophe Chagnard didn’t seem quite aligned with the music’s spirit, producing a staid melody and a sound that was ponderous rather than yearning.
After that, though, the music flowed with a delightful verve. Obviously more attune with the French delicacy of Fauré’s suite from “Pelléas et Mélisande,” Chagnard brought out the gorgeous subtleties of this piece, shifting the balance well to bring out section solos. In the first movement violins were light, airy and lyrical; tuttis were passionate; clarinet and oboe solos poignant. The spinning triplets of the second movement wove filigree around a sweet oboe and menacing horn, and the rippling Sicilienne with dark-blue toned flute was swift enough to be a dance. In the fourth movement, the striking dotted rhythm lacked a little drama due to the sheer size of the group (like the rest of the program, this is a piece written for full orchestra rather than chamber) but was still sorrowful, full of mournful loss.
After intermission came the fireworks: John Novacek playing Brahms’ second piano concerto, which has rightly been called a symphony with piano obligato, with all the orchestral difficulty that entails. Through the expansive first movement, the moody scherzo, the soft andante and bombastic final allegretto the orchestra played wonderfully, supplying responsive dialogue, eloquent solos (such as Mara Finkelstein’s beautiful cello melody throughout the andante) and a simply huge sound belying the numbers on stage, especially in brass and timpani. Chagnard controlled all with a wide emotional range, lining up entries effortlessly.
Novacek, for his part, devoured the technical virtuosity with an extrovert force: vociferous chords (accompanied rather annoyingly by foot thumps on the floor with each pedal), growly left hand, icy-clear treble melodies and a take-no-prisoners style in the octave and tenth runs. This ferocious attack meant a few inaccuracies, but the contrast with the meditative sostenuto in the andante was all the more breathtaking, and one can’t help thinking that Brahms would have been delighted with the combination of pushy confidence and phenomenal technical chops.
Finally, a Gershwin prelude for encore proved that Novacek has superb control of his pianissimos also, the bluesy bass hushed into near-nothingness.
The Northwest Sinfonietta season continues with “Mozart and Salieri” 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11 and 12, 2 p.m. Nov. 13, in Seattle, Tacoma and Puyallup. 888-356-6040, www.nwsinfonietta.org