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28.6.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 35 ) 

(published first at ionarts)

available at Amazon
Stravinsky, Malipiero, Casella, "Klassizistische Moderne, C.Hogwood
Arte Nova, the German budget label that brought us David Zinman’s Beethoven, is back in the U.S., distributed by BMG-Sony-RCA-Masterworks, or whatever the new conglomerate is called. This is volume three in a very enterprising series of interesting discs that feature 20th century works in classic form. Stravinsky is the common denominator of the three volumes and here his Pulcinella Suite for chamber orchestra shares the space with Gian Francesco Malipiero’s Ricerari per undici Instrumenti and Alfredo Casella’s Scarlattiana: Divertimento after Domenico Scarlatti.

The three works are stunningly gorgeous! The Pulcinella Suite in its outing for violin and piano is stunning enough, but lushed-up for chamber orchestra it’s a, sometimes quirky, marvel. Old wine in new bottles, some may say – but think of it as good old wine in excellent new decanters. Good ideas well developed are not worth any less for their kernel to have originated from others. Malipiero’s Ricerari are most enjoyable, too, but Scarlattiana was the impulse to buy the disc (at $6.99, I didn’t need much of an impulse). If you like Scarlatti and are not beset with an overly developed sense of musical ‘purity’, you must fall in love with the twenty minute divertimento that takes its cue from over 80 different Scarlatti sonatas.

Excellent stuff then, as are most of Arte Nova’s new (re-)releases – and at a prices that invites further exploration.

25.6.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 34 ) 

available at Amazon
available at Amazon
J.S. Bach, Cantatas, J.E. Gardiner
Long awaited, finally here: The recordings of John Elliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage 2000 during which he, his English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir performed all of Bach’s surviving church cantatas on the appointed feast day – all within that one year. The CD’s may be a byproduct of this pilgrimage, not its reason, but they are something very special, nonetheless (or precisely for that reason). They give fans of Gardiner’s incomplete Bach cantata cycle on Archiv a chance to continue that series – now on Gardiner’s own label to that purpose, “Soli Deo Gloria” (in reference of Bach’s signing his cantatas with “SDG”).

Due to the nature of this 40 volume (two discs per volume) cycle, it somehow seems to stand outside of the competing cantata surveys (Harnoncourt, Rilling, Kopmann, Suzuki). It would be difficult as it would be to judge the merit of a cycle based on just 14 cantatas anyway, but I never even felt compelled to draw on Suzuki’s or Kopmann’s versions to compare. For one, Gardiner’s cantatas are – naturally – recorded live. They are documents of travel, study, devotion, exaltation and the joy of Bach that nourishes the performers enough to have prevented them from any noticeable fatigue. I cannot imagine any other composer an orchestra should be so willing to play exclusively for an entire year, day in and out.

All these elements express themselves on these four CDs that make up volumes one and eight. Most beautifully presented in a well-documented, heavy hardbound book (much like Andante issues), the musical quality that comes to mind here foremost is honesty. No artificial polish, no grappling for effect – just gorgeous music-making in honor of God and (or) Bach. With participating soloists like Mark Padmore, James Gilchrist, Paul Agnew, Dietrich Henschel, Peter Harvey et al., it’s no wonder that the quality of performances is never less than good (often more than that) – and all that with an average of less than a week of time for preparation.

Andrew Farach-Colton, writing his review for Gramophone (the two volumes were the Record of the Month in March, waxed at length about the interpretation and execution’s supreme qualities. Enjoying them as I do, I cannot say that I am quite as ecstatic about the issues. There are some (albeit very minor) flaws in singing here and there that would hardly be noticed in the live performance but can become more obvious upon repeated listening. (Of course, I’ve been listening to them ‘round the clock, which may have been overkill.) In BWV 75 “Die Elenden sollen essen” for example, I could not choose Gardiner over Herreweghe that I recently reviewed. But then, this cycle is truly sui generis and anyone who loves Bach ought to consider dipping both ears. The price is steep, but apart from the musical content, the presentation is outstanding and both volumes are chock-full with over 145 minutes of glorious music.

22.6.05

Why Schröder’s Move to Early Elections Makes Sense 

(published first on the International Affairs Forum.)

Surprise and bafflement have beset political analysts when German chancellor Gerhard Schröder called for new elections after the sound defeat of his Social Democratic party in North Rhine-Westphalia, the Social Democrat’s heartland for many decades. Why would he risk almost certain defeat in a general election with opinion polls showing the SPD and the chancellor at almost historic lows? But the more one looks at the situation and Schröder’s alternatives, the more his move makes sense.


Messrs. Schröder and Mütefering - to whose Drummer's Beat dost the SPD dance?
Late in the race, the leading candidate in the North Rhine-Westphalia elections, Franz Müntefering, managed to close the gap between the SPD and the Christian Democrats, by switching to an outspoken anti-business campaign. This may have worked during the heat of the campaign, but it undermined the very policies that Schröder has implemented in order to make Germany competitive in the global market and lower the record unemployment that is Germany’s heaviest social burden. Had Schröder remained as the chancellor for another 16 months, the left wing of the SPD would have gained in strength, momentum and made further reforms impossible and likely tried to overturn some past achievements. This debate is now cut off at the root and the SPD must rally around Schröder, their only feasible candidate. Schröder, who actually believes in the necessity of these, however insufficient and clumsily executed and highly unpopular reforms, cannot want the left-wingers of his party to ruin his work so far. Not surprisingly, the strongest criticism of the call for new elections comes from the left corner of his party who expressed their need for “more time to reflect on the implications for the SPD of our latest electoral defeat” (Andrea Nahles). Translated, this means: We would have liked to confirm that only a strong shift to the left can rescue the SPD and we, the left wing, needed more time to consolidate our power until 2006. This is something the Chancellor is not willing to grant them.

Instead, he shows chutzpah and is willing to use his charisma in the gamble that he might defeat the charm-deficient, dour opposition leader Angela Merkel. If this were to come true, Schröder would gain a tremendous boost both within his party and in Germany and be able to continue his reforms, presumably with no interference from his own, pesky party members and less obstructionism from the opposition that controls the upper house. The unnamed SPD MP that was quoted in the FT as saying that the “highly amateurish” move to early elections will only lead the SPD into the opposition for years to come and that the party would have nothing to gain, even in the case of a victory, where they would again be facing the CDU/CSU opposition in the Bundesrat might be right about the SPD not gaining much, but is clearly wrong as far his assessment of a possible victory. Then again, this move is not so much about the SPD but Schröder. He has nothing to gain from being a solitary figure, a 16-month lame duck, opposed from within the party and facing a tough opposition that is not bound to go out of its way to make his life easier.

The reforms so far may yet provide an improvement in the German economy, but even Schröder knows that it is not going to be substantial enough to run on that record in 2006. Better to appear as daring, vigorous and challenge the voters with a message that he is willing to put his policies to their vote, while surely mentioning that the CDU/CSU is only going to continue with similar, more drastic reforms, even if they are not going to spell any of that out. He can then suggest that Germans continue with his reforms that, albeit unpopular, are necessary and are guided by social responsibility that the SPD still has some claim to, while warning the pro-business CDU of merely doing the former with ‘none’ of the latter. He probably won’t win, but he may well see the SPD to finish significantly better than anyone would be willing to predict now, thus consolidating his power within the party once more and at the same time ensuring that the reform policies will be continued by the conservative coalition, possibly setting them up for defeat in 2009, lest they manage to drastically improve the economic situation in Germany within four years.

From a legacy-point of view, it could be argued that Schröder, with the best for the country in mind, cut his own party off before it could do too much damage and avoided 16 months of gridlock at an important time for the country’s future. And while his decision is in fact only positive for the country, one would be naïve to think Schröder as so selfless. Probably more than the average politician, Schröder has a healthy sense of what benefits him, and everything but a complete disaster at the poll for his party will benefit him in the here and now, not just the history books. The only losers are going to be the ever-yesteryear leftists who believe that the current pressing economic situation can be avoided, simply by closing their eyes and denying the needs for the overdue liberalisation of the products and services markets. Schröder thankfully is not one of them. Their loss is everybody else’s – most of all the unemployed Germans’ gain.

21.6.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 33 ) 

(published first at ionarts)

available at Amazon
G. Ph. Telemann, Flute Quartets, Musica Antiqua Köln, R. Goebel
Telemann curiously divides opinions. Some – I among them – find his works uniformly charming and even inspired, others, just uniform. But those who think that Telemann can be boring must not know his Watermusik or his violin concertos. His famous Tafelmusik is admittedly long (it spans almost four hours, uncut) but that, too, has heaps of originality and beauty. Reinhard Goebel and his Musica Antiqua Köln have been some of the foremost and most skilful champions of Telemanns's musical cause. Their previous records were widely hailed for their imaginative and infectious playing, though there are works of Telemann that I prefer over his string concertos. This set of eight flute quartets (for flute, transverse flute, and recorder) is a delight. There have been few mornings lately when I haven't put them on for the sheer enjoyment of it. Only two quartet-variants are repeated on this disc (and then only once), making for six different combinations of instruments. Particularly delightful in combination with the oboe, they have a lively spirit, and if the playing could be bettered, I just can't imagine how. In three and four movements, these works were probably the ones that brought the term ‘quartet’ to music in the first place. They offer beautiful melodies for up to three instruments at a time (with the basso continuo scrubbing away on the bottom) and exemplify mastery of contrapuntal writing. One quartet might be Haendel's and another – the only one written solely for strings – while not novel (such ripieno concerti had been written before) might just be imagined to be a distant precursor to the string quartet. But such dissection is quite unnecessary when the music offers such easy delight. Superficially enjoyable: yes; superficial? no.

17.6.05

Elgar Triumphans, O'Connor Entertains 

(published first at ionarts)

Covering two world-premieres in one night is exciting for Ionarts - and we have to thank Robert R. Reilly, music critic for CRISIS and author of the delectable "Surprised by Beauty", who lent us his ears and time for the NSO's performance last evening and contributed this review.


Last night the NSO, under Leonard Slatkin, performed a varied program well. It ended in triumph.

It was, however, an odd programming choice to put a classical pops piece like Mark O’Connor’s Double Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra between two heavyweights like Hindemith’s Mathis der Mahler and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Usually that place is reserved for some modern exercise in aridity that the audience cannot avoid if it wants to hear the next piece.

I am not sure if it was I who had not quite warmed up or the orchestra at the beginning of the Hindemith piece. However, Slatkin developed a nice combination of atmosphere and energy, delicacy and grip. He and the NSO showed how beautiful this music can be, found some unexpected moments of stillness in it, but perhaps missed some of the kind of hair-raising drama that other performances have delivered. I was surprised that I was not more taken with this music that I love. Wondering what it might have sounded like at Furtwangler’s premiere, I thought he would have given it more of an interpretative edge.

The highly syncopated O’Connor piece made it hard to sit still and, apparently, for Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg to stand still. The best parts of this concerto was the dueling violins, performed spot–on by both soloists, that sometimes transformed the concert hall into a musical celebration at a barn-raising in a John Ford movie. There is no sense in taking O’Connor’s music for other than what it is: fun. However, there is a danger in taking popular musical idioms and trying to inflate them symphonically. The music usually cannot sustain the added weight. It’s like playing salon music with a hundred strings. To O’Connor’s credit, he largely avoided these dangers by concentrating on the musical pyrotechnics for the soloists.

Slatkin has a great reputation for his performances of the British repertory. From his traversal of the Enigma Variations last night, he deserves it. From the first note, it was the music speaking to you rather than being played. Seldom have I heard Elgar’s music more bathed in emotional warmth and luminous beauty, without loss of passion and drama. Slatkin and the NSO caught the subtlest gradations within the larger sense of sweep. Woodwind and string solos could not have been more affecting. The Nimrod variation was captured in such a way as to almost make time stop before its radiant beauty. This performance was an expressive triumph for all concerned. It will be repeated for the next two evenings.

Repin in a Brewbaker World Premiere 

(published first at ionarts)

With Yuri Temirkanov still stuck in St. Petersburg due to a back injury that prevents him from travel, James Judd stepped in to conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in a program that featured Vadim Repin – arguably the finest violinist today – in two concertos. Daniel Brewbaker’s Playing and Being Played (the ink barely dry) got its world premiere and was preceded by Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, a work that Repin has proven to excel in. (His recording with Gergiev is by far my favorite among modern traversals.) Reshpigi’s Pines of Rome concluded the evening.

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P.Tchaikovsky, N.Myaskovsky, Violin Concertos, Repin/Gergiev
Repin has a burnished, rich and chisled, at the same time extremely agile, tone was notable from the first notes in the Tchaikovsky. Much has been made of the ‘critical’ reception of the concerto after its premiere. Frustrating as it was for Tchaikovsky, it delights us now to read such erudite boneheadedness as Hanslick’s verdict. And wrong though, as he was, this undisputed master of catchy word imagery left us with the delightful sound-bite that op.35 for the first time raised the possibility that music might stink to the ears. Nowadays, audiences smell nothing other than perhaps a lightly perfumed air it seems to exude. The performance was a bit heavy in the first movement Allegro moderato and remained insistently earthbound. It had a fierce and furious finale but not the compelling drive that can, for example, be found in the vintage account of Milstein with Steinberg. The middle movement, Canzonetta: Andante cannot but delight – but Repin and his orchestral partner really took off only in the Finale: Allegro vivcissimo. Though Repin cannot be credited with an exceedingly big tone, his 1708 “Ruby” Stradivarius allowed him to sound delectable (perhaps with a touch of viola-like dark hues) in any position. The impressive fleetness he showcased was all his doing. The BSO under Judd responded with the right amount of brooding, Russian peasant-like thump in the earthy sections and virtuosic enthusiasm in the quicksilver passages. Not a ‘great’ performance, but an eminently enjoyable one. (Repin, as it were, could play jet-lagged, borderline routine, and still put most other violinists to shame.)

With the score of Brewbaker’s violin concerto in front of me (my acquaintance had snatched it from the hands of the composer, just before it started), I got to read the Rumi poem that served as its inspiration:
There are no words to explain,
no tounge,
how when that player touches
the strings, it is me playing
and being played,
how existence turns
around this music, how stories
grow from the trunk,
how cup and mouth
swallow each other with the wine,
how a garnet
stone come from nowhere is puzzled
by these miners,
how even if you look for us
hair’s breadth by hair’s breadth, you’ll
not find anything. We’re inside
the hair
How last night a spear struck, how
the lion drips red, how someone pulls
at my robe of tattered patches.
“It’s all I have?
Where are your clothes?”
How shams of Tabriz
lives outside time, how what happens
to me happens there

RUMI (1207-1275)

Winds, especially oboes, are enveloped in a give and take with the violin, taking the concerto through hauntingly beautiful melodies. Marimba accentuated, the listener is lead into a percussion clockwork that tip-toes along with us. Rich in contrasts, easy to listen to (and easy to read), the concerto establishes early on that it is a crowd-pleasing and rather excellent addition to the repertoire. Though it has many diverse elements – light Shostakovich and Mahler effects in the orchestration with Bernstein liberally sprinkled in – it never sounds like a soupy hodge-podge of disjointed ideas but rather like a novel (if not very ‘modern’) delicacy. It happily embraces tonality that is increasingly welcomed by contemporary composers. With new works like this being composed, audiences need not fear the modern anymore – if “fear” is indeed what kept them from accepting works that had so often been gratuitously difficult.

The BSO played diligently and with great effect and very few missed entries – probably spurned on by the presence of the composer and because they, presumably, liked the pleasant work, too. There was a time when calling a work “un-offensive” was the damnation of the most devastating kind… No longer. Exploring the very high registers of the violin at length but balancing that with serene as well as furiously fast sections (towards the end mostly in ¾ over 32nd notes gives us a rich palette of the violins’ and its players’ abilities. With someone like Repin championing it, it shines brightly and ought to make its way into the repertoire. Although it lasts roughly twenty minutes, it seemed about half as long – compliment enough itself. Composer and players were received with unanimous standing ovations. Music with a pulse as it delights Ionarts.

Resphigi’s Pines of Rome can be quipped to be “trite and true” – but it served its function extremely well, its calm and low, relaxed state (even in fff) during the first three movements being the perfect antidote to the high-pitched frenzy of the Brewbaker finale. Pines of the Appian Way (its last movement) is stunning to hear live, every time. The concert was easily one of the best orchestral presentations I have heard this season (DSCH 11, Mahler 9, Elgar 2 to mention a few other highlights) and it was surprising to see so many empty seats given the combination of stellar artist, popular works and world premiere. It ought to be heard – and the chance to do so exists tonight at 8.00PM and Sunday at 3.00PM and at Strathmore on Saturday at 8.00PM.

14.6.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 32 ) 

(published first at ionarts)

available at Amazon
L. van Beethoven, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, C. Mackerras
These critters have been around before, but it is most welcome they be back. The Creatures of Prometheus belong to the surprisingly large amount of music of Beethoven's with which we are not particularly familiar, if we know it at all. We may know the overtures of much of the incidental music, but usually not the rest. We should, though, because it's good, it's original, and it's Beethoven. The cello miniature in the Adagio, to pick just one random example, is a delight and Beethoven unlike anywhere else. The new price of the Helios incarnation of the older Hyperion disc is very convenient and leaves no excuse not to venture out to discover this gem. If you like that music, look out for the complete Music for the Consecration of the House (figure out which piano sonata was godfather to one of its movments), the Mass in C Minor, the complete Egmont music, and (for yet more Goethe/Beethoven) Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.

Helios 55796

11.6.05

Mi Chiamo Luisa Miller 

(published first at ionarts)

updated 10 VI


A wonderfully played clarinet stuck out of Verdi's Luisa Miller overture when the Washington Concert Opera Orchestra, led by Music Director Antony Walker, presented it at GW's Lisner Auditorium. But not only the clarinet did well: the entire orchestra fulfilled the expectations they had set with their notable performance of Esclarmonde last April. Only the violin section was a little thin and sounded exhausted by the third act. But Esclarmonde was such a magnificent success on account of its singing, and the expectations set there were perhaps unrealistic for any opera house performance to fulfill, much less the most admirable but small WCO.

The singers in Luisa Miller included an outstanding, clear baritone Donnie Ray Albert as Signor Miller (the audience rose unisono when he came on stage after the 'curtain'), and Indra Thomas (Luisa) with a powerful, MET-tested, but hazy voice that won in stature as the evening went on. Kyle Engler, not new to Washington audiences who had the chance to see her in Andrea Chénier, Democracy, and Dialogue of the Carmelites, impressed with clarity and her beautiful, chamber-like, never pushed voice in the third act.

Richard Leech lent his tenor to the role of Rodolfo. Having sung 12 roles at the MET is an impressive item on any tenor's vita, and not surprisingly he had no problems filling the Lisner Auditorium with his sound. Somehow, though Mr. Leech, too, sounded a bit stuffy, something I would have blamed on the acoustics, if Mr. Albert had not sung next to him with a considerably higher degree of clarity. Wurm (German for worm) was sung by Matthew Lau, whose bass is imposing but far back in the throat. Daniel Sumegi sang Count Walter very well, his sonorous bass-baritone with that far-back cavernous sound about it that can be the product of projection winning over tone production. (The result is curiously similar to the sound you make saying 'AAAAaaah' at the Doctor's.) Like many of the impressive cast members, Mr. Sumegi has bona fide credentials, the MET, Covent Garden, and the Paris Opera being just a few of the notable houses in which he has sung.

Christa Ludwig-mentored Gigi Mitchell-Valesco is no stranger, either: she had contributed to that splendid Esclarmonde in the role of Parséïs. This time she sang Federica to the highest standards, with wit and with grace.

The opera itself divides opera lovers. Verdi fans will certainly appreciate most of it (and there are glorious moments in it), but the seams of this cobbled-together opera are very noticeable. The drama isn't all too compelling, and there might, after all, be a reason why it is not terribly often performed. If the singing is as good as it was at the Washington Concert Opera, it might be compelling... if the singing were any less than that, I suspect all but the most ardent Verdinites in the audience would be terribly bored by and throughout the third act. As someone who fails to see the genius behind Nabucco, though, my word may not count for much. An impressive feat it was, but as spectacular as Esclarmonde it was not. Tim Page's take on Luisa Miller can be read here.

Next season has one particular gem to look forward to, Rossini's Tancredi. (Why they bother with Cavalleria Rusticana as part of a double bill, I do not know. I might be misled by its popularity on record to think it is well performed, but even if it were neglected, I could think of many operas, short or long, that are neglected and that I would crawl on my knees to the Lisner to see the WCO do.)

update:

Jeffrey Kallberg criticises rightly:
It is fair enough to find fault with Verdi's music from a personal aesthetic point of view - we all have our stylistic bugaboos - but it isn't so fair to portray Luisa Miller as "cobbled together" (implying that Verdi threw the thing together hastily, clumsily, and/or without careful planning). Both Verdi and Cammarano (the librettist) toiled hard on the piece, thoughtfully working out what they felt to be the proper sequence of dramatic action and the attendant musical settings. If Verdi and Cammarano had truly "cobbled together" Luisa Miller, contemporary critics of the stature of Basevi would not have been likely to see the opera as marking the onset of Verdi's mature middle style.


His is a point well taken. Perhaps the review was 'cobbled together', rather than Luisa Miller. What I was aiming at, was more the somewhat predictable un-novel composition (not the notes, but the structure) that, for all the thoughtful work that probably went into it, hardly bursts at the seems with novelty. In my biased eyes and ears, Luisa Miller is a victim of the expectations (and conventions) of its time and does not go much beyond those.

9.6.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 31 ) 

(published first at ionarts)

available at Amazon
F. Mendelssohn, String Quartets, Vol. 3, Eroica Quartet
Hardly a month goes by without a new recording of Mendelssohn quartets being on my desk for review. (Next month it will be the Pacifica Quartet's complete set, and some weeks ago it was the Emerson.) Right off the bat, you can hear the differences in tone from the Eroica Quartet and most of the (numerous) competition. Strident, dark, metallic almost—far from soft or round, it is an exciting tone, if you want a change from the more common warmth in these works. The playing is generally very good, but not as polished in op. 44, no. 3, as I'd expect from a studio recording (no such complaints as regards op. 80 and the pieces for string quartet op. 81). If you like the particular, "Romantic period performance style" of the quartet and how it has been recorded (perhaps you have heard the previous two installments of their now complete cycle), you will find it a splendid finale. (Their practices, utilizing fingering of Mendelssohn's time, include plenty of portamento, ferocious bowstrokes, and little continuous vibrato.) If you like it just a tad more conventional, I don't see this disc high up on your wish list, especially not at full price when the complete and dependable Ysaÿe cycle barely costs more.

3.6.05

Slava, Slava Slatkin & Shostakovich (and Britten) 

(published first at ionarts)

While the number thirty-two might suggest a fairly mature work for Mozart’s G-major symphony, it is a product of the young, twenty-three year old composer, then still in Salzburg. There had been larger symphonies among the 31+ predecessors, but the substantial, magnificent ones were yet to come. Still, in loveliness, this utility sinfonietta is not surpassed by many. Its refreshingly brevity of ten shy minutes made it a convenient aperitif for the Britten Violin Concerto to follow. The NSO, under Leonard Slatkin, did full justice to the gaiety and light step of the work.

available at Amazon
Britten / Walton, Violin / Viola Contertos, Vengeroff, Rostropovich
No music loving soul could possibly hold it against Benjamin Britten that he thought composing music was a more worthwhile way to fight continental totalitarianism than handling a 4Mk1 Enfield. The Violin Concerto is one of the children of his excile, composed at the age of twenty-five.
Slatkin did well to let soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann ‘fight for himself’ in the concerto, playing the orchestra with all the energy and heft that the more martial passages demand, rather than succumbing to the otherwise introverted and reflective nature of Britten’s op.15. Heard within a few weeks of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1 (with Gidon Kremer at Strathmore – reviewed on Ionarts) makes a particularly vivid point about the similarities between the concertos and, indeed, between the composers in some of their œvre. (Richard Freed’s program notes pointed to the Passacaglia as one of the most important and obvious touching points.)

Zimmermann is one of the finest of his generation of violinists, an intellectual of his instrument, not unlike his German compatriot Christian Tetzlaff. He may not have the variety of tones and nuance of a Vadim Repin or the raw, virtuosic energy of a Maxim Vengeroff, but his clarity and the well thought-out structure of his dark-hued and – needless to say – impeccable playing can only be awed at. The devilishly difficult (but not particularly showy) passages in the Vivace with extensive left-hand pizzicati thrown into the bow’s melody seemed like a walk in the park for him.

For all the differences between Slatkin and the players, what cannot be denied is the huge improvement that this orchestral body has made under him. And it shows in almost every concert he conducts in this, his second to last season with the NSO. Committed and alternatingly lyrical and brooding, the Britten Violin Concerto spoke to that effect. The work is also one of those, the case of which can be made better in concert than recording. (On record, mentioned Mr. Vengeroff recently recorded a fine version under Rostropovich, coupled with the Viola Concerto of Walton.) That point was proven on the spot, when the Audience burst into several salvos of bravos upon the reappearance of the magnificent Frank Peter Zimmermann. New converts to Britten and the particular concerto had been made.

I have been on a Shostakovich trip for some time now, rediscovering many of the symphonies that had hitherto eluded me. The 11th is one of them. All the better then to hear it live as part of this excellent (and rather daring, for Washington) program with its links from violist Mozart to violist Britten to his contemporary Shostakovich. The 11th Symphony in g-minor, too, is a work that can only unfold in the concerto hall to its true stature – only afterwards can a recording be appreciated, in light of the sonic limitations that lo- and mid-fi stereo equipment (or our neighbours) restrict us to. Depending on which point of view you take in the DSCH-assessment – Volkoff vs. Fay, if you wish – it is tempting to think of the 11th Symphony “The Year of 1905” as “The Year of 1956”, the year of the Hungarian uprising and consequent bloody squashing of the Red Army. From its timpani punctuated gloomy, soft rise to the bell-ringing, massive finale it’s a work that can be interpreted any which way it pleases you. But just knowing the String Quartets of Shostakovich is enough to lead me to the “indictment in celebration’s cloth” point-of-view.

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D. Shostakovich, Sy.#11, Stokowski / Houston SO
The symphony opens almost laconically, with Shostakovich’s typically eternal run-up until it finally arrives at the irresistible momentum that makes many of his orchestral giants such ruthless onslaughts. He takes his good time with it, as so often… but part of experiencing Shostakovich is not about the particular moment but about how you got there, where you’ve been before you arrive at any one moment and about how you feel, when you finally get there. A dead tree in the snow will look different if you have passed it three times before, walking in circles. (A link could be drawn to the work of Philip Glass, another composer where ‘the moment’ means significantly less than the impact of the whole and the previous.)

Slatkin treaded carefully in the first movement, conjuring faintly the grim things in store for us. The onslaught comes, sure enough, in the second movement “The 9th of January” – creeping in after the seamless connection to the first movement (“The Palace Square”). Just like Mahler in his works, DSCH celebrates many faux-climaxes from hereon. The driving, propulsive undercurrent turns his often initially slow moving works into musical juggernauts, something the 11th has very much in common with the 4th Symphony. (CD Reviews here and here.) Slatkin knew how to push the NSO to show its teeth while the audience gritted theirs through the fierce, decibel-heavy, attacks. But Shostakovich doesn’t need decibels to be fierce; even the consequent soft passages offer no respite. They merely carry their knife in the pocket, ready to spring open at a moments notice.

And so the symphony went on, with bloodshot eyes, biting a live bat’s head off… until the listener is driven all the way back into his or her seat, pumping their fist to a crazed look and total concentration. (Well, at least this listener.) The second movement’s celesta-harp-string moment of solemnity, after a climax that makes the finale of the 5th Symphony look tame, is like an otherworldly dreamscape… like realizing an evil without being able to grasp it. The false, empty triumph and gargantualism of the finale (“Tocsin”) is an experience to behold – and certainly was with the NSO. It was a rousing affair, moving, positively exasperating and alone would make for a concert not to be missed. With Zimmermann’s Britten and the delicious Mozart appetizer, however, it’s a must-hear. Repeat performances will take place today, Friday, and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8.00PM.

Tim Page quite liked the concert himself, as he relates to us in the Washington Post.

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