Bach gets Raff Treatment under Slatkin 

(published first at ionarts)

This week’s batch of concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra featured Pinchas Zukerman as violinist and violist in Berg and Berlioz. Before those two “B’s” came Joachim Raff’s working-over of the Bach Chaconne from the Partita for unaccompanied Violin in D-Minor. Romantic lushinization of baroque music is not anymore in sync with our current musical Zeitgeist, just like Albert Coates/Thomas Beecham-style Matthew Passions and Messiahs have fallen out of favor pretty hard. If the Ruff-ed up Chaconne was a success or worth hearing will thus much depend on your attitude towards that sort of thing. Raff was no Berg or Webern or Schoenberg when it came to treating the old master. The latter threesome’s adaptations are often a miracle on top of a wonder; at the least they are finely composed precision works. Raff, a contemporary of Brahms’ who was thought highly of by Tchaikovsky, is more a handyman tackling Bach like a musical plumber. That doesn’t mean that Bach goes down the drain – so long as you listen to his creation with romantic ears. I myself am a complete sucker for these kinds of things and found the whole affair wonderful. Better yet, the NSO did not torpedo the odd programming choice of the Maestro and played the work with considerable engagement. If it sounded even less like Bach than most Stokowsky transcriptions, it was not because of even greater bombast but because of the surprisingly unselfconscious, happy-go-lucky romanticism.

It is telling of Pinchas Zukerman's skill in adapting to the viola that to some listeners he is principally known as a violist. (To me, at any rate.) The first gig of his, though, had him wield the smaller fiddle in the Berg Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. The concerto is the pantonalist’s default defense against the accusations of those with more conservative tastes that no beauty can come of Schoenberg’s “advancements”. Well, Berg’s concerto contains more than enough beauty – after all, no one writes ‘gratuitously ugly music’ “in memory of an angel”. (The concerto was written in dedication to Manon Gropius, Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius daughter that died at 19 of polio.) Then again, the concerto is not pure atonality, either. Tonal relationships blink throughout the entire composition, providing even a neophyte listener with at least seconds of beauty amidst dissonance. Pinchas Zukerman navigated through the work with great routine and consummate skill. The more demanding (on the listener, at any rate) Adagio of the second movement contained fragility and aplomb – and always Zukerman’s steady, firm tone. The steadiness was underscored by the fact that Zukerman, once he started playing, stood on the stage like nailed to the ground. His feet, I think, never moved an inch. The performance was difficult to judge – Berg proved to be bigger than his interpreters. But the concerto didn’t need brilliance, it merely needed to be performed well - and that it certainly was.

Berlioz’ Harold in Italy saw the white-haired, yet strangely young looking (he’s been around so long, it surprises that he is only 57) Pinchas Zukerman back with the viola. Harold, a “Symphony with viola obligato” is a faux viola concerto commissioned by and written for none other than Paganini himself. Of course Paganini wasn’t going to like a work that did not have him show off his formidable skill throughout the whole piece (much less sit down and join the orchestra in the last movement!). He paid for; but never played it. Richard Freed’s program notes (which make excellent use of Donald Tovey’s essay on HiT) point out that Paganini’s Stradivarius viola for which he had the work written is now in the collection of the Corcoran collection and is used by the performing violist whenever the NSO plays Harold.

The performance was solid (cleaner brass entries in the third movement would have been nice), the irregular stops and goes of the Pilgrims’ March were nicely accentuated, and the final Orgy of the Brigands was a rambunctious affair that woke those up, for whom the evening had begun to get long. The Straussian quartet passage just before the wild finish came across particularly well.

Repeat performances will take place today and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM.

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