12 October 2003: The MET Orchestra's 2003-2004 Season began with a program that was too rich for any conceivable performance. There were two monumental concertos; although in most ways they couldn't have been more different, they shared a brooding romantic intensity, and one would have been enough - which is another way of saying that the second had an awful air of surplus. The afternoon wasn't quite so exhausting as another, last season, in which the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364 was followed by Brahms's Double Concerto, and, after the intermission, by an incongruous if brilliant performance of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto - two double concertos and a virtuoso extravaganza! - but the crammed-together goodies suggested that James Levine has a long list of works that he has to shoehorn into too few concert dates.
The goodies were by Berlioz and Brahms. It would be difficult to imagine two composers living entirely within the nineteenth century who had less in common. Berlioz wrote music that sounds headlong even when it's actually quite well put together, and colored it with extraordinary, often flamboyant orchestration. (This point could not have been more clearly made than it was by the daredevil performance of his concert overture, 'Le Corsaire,' that opened the concert.) Brahms's orchestrations are remarkably conservative, reverently confined to Beethoven's instrumentation, and his music wears the same intensely thought-through air that goes far to justify the old bundling of 'the three Bs' (Bach being the first). There is nothing rash in Brahms, and almost nothing else in Berlioz. Their appearance together can only be attributed to juggled schedules: we're still in Berlioz' bicentennial year (he was born in 1803), and pianist Evgeny Kissin has been playing Brahms lately.
Berlioz wrote Harold en Italie in response to a commission from the greatest violinist of the day, Niccolò Paganini. Paganini had acquired a Stradivarius viola and wanted a vehicle with which to show it off, but he never played Harold, famously complaining that the work had 'too many rests.' As indeed it does, considered as a concerto. Like so much of Berlioz' output, it is one of a kind, consisting of four motivically-linked tone poems with an obbligato viola part that never quite engages in in true concerto - concerted - dialogue with the orchestra. Like Byron's hero, the violist stands to one side and is more likely to echo than to argue. The orchestra seems not even to notice his absence for most of the finale. But rarely has the viola's melancholy inclination been given fuller voice, and never, I think, in an orchestral setting. After a somewhat lugubrious introduction, the soloist arrives with a simple, sad little tune that is soon swallowed up by a swirling faster section reminiscent of the 'Chorus of the Brigands' from Lélio. There's nothing quite like heartsore stillness of the 'Marche des pèlerins,' and the long chain of arpeggios that brings this movement to a close must be the most serious virtuoso exercise ever written. The viola's gravity certainly sobers up the orchestra's attempt at gaiety in the 'Sérénade' that follows. The stormily uncertain finale, titled 'Orgie des brigands,' utilizes Beethoven's device of quoting the foregoing movements, but with the added trick of off-stage performance by a small string band. This is a work that I've loved for many years, but I've never heard it so well performed as it was by the MET. The orchestra's first violist, Michael Ouzounian, played with a legerity that was at times too light, drowned out by the orchestral ruckus, and perhaps Harold in Italy is best served by latter-day Paganinis, the star violinists who have recorded it.
Mr Kissin's performance of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 was beautiful, but not in the right way. The pianist coaxed so much loveliness out of every phrase that each minute of the performance erased all the preceding ones. He also belabored the difficulty of his part, conquering each challenge in a way that proclaimed the sheer achievement of it all. It was a prodigy's performance, and although Mr Kissin is no longer a very young man, he has many years in which to grow into this music, as I hope he'll do. The audience, predictably, was wholly persuaded by his dazzling approach, and rewarded him with ovations sufficiently protracted to coax forth four encores. These brilliant tidbits by Mendelssohn, Chopin and Brahms were more to Mr Kissin's point than the concerto had been. I'd have been thrilled to hear him take on Schumann's Toccata.
The MET Orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall under Metropolitan Opera Music Director James Levine have achieved the consistent superiority that makes musical legend. From time to time, since Mendelssohn's day at the podium of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, there have emerged remarkably bonded pairs of composers and orchestras. Theodore Thomas with the Chicago Symphony, Sir Thomas Beecham with the Royal Philharmonic, and Willem Mengelberg with the Concertgebouw Orchestra are three examples of extraordinary synergy. When I was growing up, Arturo Toscanini's work with the (pickup) NBC Symphony Orchestra was already storied; sadly, I was too green to appreciate the collaboration of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic that dominated my earliest concerts. But I'm wide awake to the marvels of the orchestra that Jimmy built at the Met.
This makes writing about the individual concerts very difficult. I expect to be dazzled and I am, sometimes too much so. In February, the orchestra offered what turned out to be a wretched excess of concertos, starting off with Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, which is too important a piece to open any program unless the only other work to be performed be Brahms's Double Concerto. Well, we had the Double Concerto, too, and then, after intermission, an extraordinary performance of yet another formidable concerto, the 'Rach III.' The playing was brilliant throughout, with all the soloists except for pianist Arcadi Volodos stepping forward from the orchestra's ranks, but after a while the brilliance became a glare. The Mozart and Brahms works are charged with a banked, introspective passion quite at odds with the high glamour of the Rachmaninov; the former, consequently, seemed a little stodgy, and the latter altogether glitzy. This was all the doing of the programming. You will see that I have contrived to be 'critical' even while acknowledging that the performances were superb. Such is one's desperation when faced with blanket superlatives.
The season's penultimate concert was the Orchestra's contribution to this year's Berlioz Bicentennial. Perhaps because the Opera will mount its first production of Benvenuto Cellini next season, we began with the two orchestral excerpts, the opera's overture and the Roman Carnival arrangement that Berlioz himself fashioned from what is possibly the most demanding choral scene in all opera. It was probably inevitable that the second half of the concert would be given over to the Symphonie Fantastique, and just as inevitable that the performance would inspire ball-park cheers from the audience at the end. Although I'm a great fan of Berlioz, I find the Symphonie Fantastique a little too hyper to follow with complete attention, and my mind drifted constantly to thoughts of Verdi, whose debt to Berlioz as an orchestrator has never, I think, been properly recognized, and even of Tchaikovsky, who seems to differ from his Baltic and Russian contemporaries largely in his daring, Berliozian feel for color. The playing was not quite perfect - I heard two flubs, one of them minor and one of them decidedly not - but when it came time to boom out the finales (and this is a work with many finales), Mr Levine and the Met let go.
Between the Cellini bits and the intermission, Olga Borodina came out and sang La Mort de Cléopâtre, a favorite of mine since I heard the earlier of Janet Baker's recordings a thousand years ago. My friends who follow Ms Borodina's career, recently interrupted by pregnancy, say that the voice has darkened a bit, and observe that the top is not so secure, but I found myself thinking of Eileen Farrell, who had the same kind of robust but actually very pretty voice. The opening recitative was sung with great authority, a complete impersonation of the grand, fatal Egyptian queen, and the 'Méditation,' "Grands pharaons" was fully charged with the awesome force of destiny. Ms Borodina had a bit of trouble with an awkward high note at the beginning, and in the tumultuous music that precedes the attenuated suicide she was drowned out altogether by the orchestra - another pair of flubs to remind me that absolute perfection is rarely attained even at these concerts. But the success was still overwhelming, in that it made me wish, as a fine performance of this music always does, that Berlioz had managed to write a full-length opera to lead up to this divine scene.
The season's final offering was its choral concert. Everyone says that the Met's chorus has become as good as its orchestra, and so far as the men, and perhaps even the altos, are concerned, I'm not inclined to argue. But the sopranos sound like a miscellaneous bunch of wannabe divas. Their voices do not meld, and when they sing high they simply caterwaul. It is not pleasant to hear them.
Again, I took issue with the programming. Brahms's Schicksalslied and Mozart's Mass in C-Minor went well enough together, and perhaps might have been quite enough by themselves, especially given the laborious intervals between the Mass's numbers, in which the chorus would stand up or sit down (that noise!) or the soloists would get up from their chairs and wander somewhere else to sing. (During the Et incarnatus, soprano Heidi Grant Murphy actually waded into the orchestra so as to sing amidst her wind accompaniers, a maneuver that contributed less than nothing.) What certainly didn't fit on this bill was Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, a severely stylized essay in displaced feeling softened only by the beautifual 'Alleluias' that open and close the last movement. When, at the very end of the Mass, bass-baritone John Relyea finally got to stand up and sing with the others, I was furious that he hadn't been given something more; Handel's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day came to mind, as something that we might have had in the first half. That would have brought out the archaism of the Mass, written when Mozart was first becoming familiar with baroque masterpieces in general and Handel in particular. And, as I say, it would have let us hear much more of John Relyea's wonderful voice, a finely-shadowed masculine growl turned into music. Perhaps there's a short Bach cantata for bass and chorus that might have served. Anything but the Stravinsky. It was very well done, but at odds with the other music.
Everything was well done. But the Brahms would have worked better at the end. The Schicksalslied is a profoundly retrospective piece that, for happy appreciation, ought to follow a good deal of preliminary music, and Mozart's Mass, sophisticated for its own time if not for ours, would have set it up very well. Mr Levine did a wonderful job of bringing out the music's deliberately old-fashioned (for 1783) quality; for the first time, listening to the 'Domine Deus,' I wondered if Mozart knew anything of Vivaldi. In addition to Ms Murphy and Mr Relyea, the soloists were mezzo Susan Graham, who had a great time tossing off the 'Laudamus te,' and tenor Matthew Polenzani, who made a fine impression even though he had no solos. (Neither, of course, did Mr Relyea.) In the end, however, the performance did nothing to efface the fact that this Mass is seriously incomplete, lacking half of the Credo and the Agnus Dei altogether. If Mr Levine had any ideas about where work's center of gravity lies, he kept them to himself.
Between the Brahms and the Stravinsky, something altogether new and different - and most unwelcome - happened. The lights went down; then they went back up, and a spokesman came out to say that one of the musicians was held up in traffic. Since there are no soloists in the Stravinsky, I couldn't at first see why this should hold anything up. But when a trumpeter crossed the stage about ten minutes later and the lights went down to great applause, I bore in mind that Stravinsky's calling for five trumpets probably ruled out substitutions.
In another, even more incidental way, I couldn't help noticing how the lady soloists matched their dresses to their musical production. Ms Murphy wore a set of pale draperies, part Grecian and part angel, that corresponded to her somewhat fussy singing, while Ms Graham, in a low-cut black sheath that gave her the profile of dish out of Peter Arno, was all good-time girl, with plenty of voice to spare. I couldn't help thinking of the title song from Ms Graham's saucy new album, C'est ça la vie, c'est ça l'amour, although, thanks to the great assurance of her performance, I wasn't distracted by it. (May 2003)
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