30 January 2005 It's time to say something about the last of this season's MET Orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall, and if you'll just think for a minute and give it a bit of the old college try (history of that phrase, anyone?), you'll spare me the effort and write it yourself. Am I going to say that the performances were great? Of course. Am I going to say that the program was a mess? You bet.
I'm beginning to think that there is a hole in, or near the middle of, James Levine's musicality. Perhaps it's a kind of undiscriminating gourmandise: too much is never enough. It doesn't matter what goodies are spread upon the table, as long as they're all, individually, delicious. My own taste in music is less focused, I suppose; I don't drop into the center of each thing that I hear with an empty mind, oblivious of what I've already heard (or even of what I expect to hear later). Concert performances are paramount - nothing can redeem poor or indifferent execution - but concert programs are tantamount: they're as important. A well put-together program enhances the sheen of each of its part. Perhaps I'm afflicted with gesamtkonzertohren: I hear the entire concert with one pair of ears (pardon my pseudo-Wagnerism).
So what was I to do on Sunday? We had everything but Johann Strauss, Jr.'s "Firebell" Polka. To see the entire program at a glance, click here.
The glory of the concert came, appropriately, at the end: Mr Levine and the MET gave Dvořák's Eighth Symphony a truly authoritative reading. What do I mean by "authoritative"? I mean that the music flowed from the stage with a beautiful importance that drove the very existence of other symphonies from the mind. "This is the whole point of concert-going," it sang - leaving nicely ambiguous the question of whether the hearing or the playing were the point. "This is why saving Carnegie Hall was a boon of world-historical significance!" The mind could not wander; it was, as they used to say, held in thrall. The music blasted through niceness and prettiness and excellence to become, in Wallace Stevens's words, "the fertile thing that can attain no more" ("Credences of Summer") The brass roared, the strings soared - it was all perfect. Doubts about renewing a very, very expensive subscription were stilled.
Everything on the program was well performed. As with last week's performance of Elliott Carter's Variations for Orchestra, Anton Webern's Symphony, Op. 21 and Charles Wuorinen's Grand Bamboula were played with the same authority that was bestowed upon the Dvořák, but without elating anybody in the house, except perhaps Mr Wuorinen, who was on hand to accept an ovation. Both of these Twentieth Century works were brief, and both eschewed melody like the plague. If I had to choose between them, I'd take the Webern; it's possible that I'm beginning to appreciate Webern's sly symmetries and his Klee-like delicacy. The Grand Bamboula was an alarming racket that reminded me of speed trips and manias, pressing excitedly and anxiously in and out of a nightmare. Here's an excerpt from the program notes: "The repeated notes (G) that open the piece recur in more provocatively dissonant forms later on, and that pitch (without repetitions) writes a fading finis at the end, following after an exhilarating chase through 264 rapid sixteenth notes by the violins." Provocatively dissonant - exactly. I was mildly provoked, let me tell you.
In the middle of the concert, the great Belgian baritone, José van Dam, sang most of Mahler's Rückert Lieder. This set of five songs is regarded by many as Mahler's most transcendent work; possibly its renown owes something to its brevity. Mr van Dam's voice is youthful and blooming in the middle and at the top, but the bottom of his voice was nearly inaudible, a flaw attributed by my companions to his age (he will be 65 this year). The singer was pitching in for Thomas Quasthoff, who'd had to cancel, and who was to have sung Ravel's "Shehérazade." Whether that would have fit better or worse alongside the other items on the program I won't venture to guess. But at least the Ravel is a self-contained work. Instead of singing all five Rückert Lieder, Mr van Dam began with a somewhat lackluster concert aria by Mozart, interesting only because of its orchestral reminiscences of Don Giovanni, which Mozart was writing at about the same time, and "Es ist genug," from Mendelssohn's Elias ("Elijah"). This was done well enough to stir hopes of Mr Levine's bringing Mr van Dam back in some future season to perform the entire oratorio. And then three of the five Mahler songs, "Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder," the always gorgeous "Liebst du um Schönheit," and "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," a poem of such bleakness that only Mahler could have made it lovely. The orchestra was superb, and its exquisite detail work lingered in the mind after intermission to reveal surprising family likenesses in the symphony written by Mahler's fellow Bohemian, Dvořák.
The overture to Weber's Der Freischütz opened the concert with agreeable éclat; it was taken very seriously by the musicians, and, but for a burble in the horns at the start (made up for by glorious blaring later on), altogether without the sloppiness that often defaces what is, after all, a difficult score. If we could have moved from the Weber to the Webern, and thence to a complete Rückert Lieder, and closed with the Dvořák after intermission, the concert would have held together beautifully, each part gracing the others. As it was, we heard music of wildly diverging significance from seven composers. I hope that Mr Levine learns some day the most important rule of accessorizing: always take something off before you leave the house. Unmarried, Mr Levine hasn't got a helpful wife on hand to teach him this.
23 January 2005 Anne Sofie von Otter, the great Swedish mezzo-soprano who was brought up partly in London, the daughter of a diplomat, is in town getting ready for a Metropolitan Opera production of Debussy's Pélléas et Mélisande (performances begin next Saturday). So she was available to step in for schedule-conflicted Thomas Quasthoff at this afternoon's MET Orchestra concert, to sing Das Lied von der Erde. It is characteristic of the MET Orchestra series to provide replacements of Ms von Otter's caliber; I am perhaps not alone in saying that I was happier with the change, simply because I prefer to hear a woman sing the work's three songs for lower voice. Ms von Otter is perhaps a bit too fresh, scrubbed and youthful to invest this heartbreaking music with its full measure of pathos, but I quibble, and, in any case, I will never forget her way with the ending, an ever-softer repetition of ewig, "forever."
Das Lied von der Erde is Mahler's last complete success - or perhaps I should say that it's the only work later than the Fourth Symphony that never seems to stray from complete coherence. The scoring is a summa of Mahler's aesthetic of orchestration, and while there are many reminiscences of earlier music (especially of the early Wunderhorn works), each of these six settings of Chinese poetry operates with a discipline and even an economy not found in the composer's other late works. The poems, which appeared in an anthology of German renderings edited by a man who, knowing no Chinese himself, simply drew on earlier translations, share with the Wunderhorn poems that inspired so much of Mahler's early output a laconic, elliptical view of experience that foregrounds precise impressions at the expense of emotional generalizations. This allows Mahler to provide the emotional background in purely musical form, always underlining the irony of feeling great but unmentioned sadness.
A great performance of Das Lied von der Erde is shattering. I wasn't shattered this afternoon, but I attribute this to my own somewhat distracted state of mind and also to the antibiotics that I've been taking. I also attribute it to the sheer perfection of the MET Orchestra's playing. I was too impressed by expert execution not to feel strangely - perversely - elated. There were moments in the fifth of the songs, Der Trunkene im Frühling ("The Drunkard in Spring"), when the orchestra broadcast a supplemental set of signifiers (I'm thinking of the instruction manual in Contact) consisting of mental images of the "Old Europe" that was swept away by Hitler and the Russians, and it's true that from this point on I felt the work's immense and sorrowful wisdom. But I ought to have sensed this earlier, and I'm quite serious when I say that I'm thinking of having my hearing checked.
For quite a few years now, I've suffered from the same aural degradation that used to make my father so impatient with lively restaurants; it's not at all uncommon, I'm told, in middle-aged men. Hovering over shorter people at a cocktail party, I watch their mouths move, and I catch an occasional sound that can be traced unmistakably back to them, but for the most part all I hear is a babbling roar; the ability to distinguish a voice at close range from other voices has vanished. Something like this afflicted me this afternoon. In the first two songs, I watched the soloists sing without necessarily hearing them. It is true that the orchestra called for by the score of Das Lied von der Erde is very large, and there wasn't much empty square footage onstage. But it is also true that Ms von Otter and her partner, tenor Ben Heppner, have great big voices that fill the Metropolitan Opera. By the third song, Von der Jugend ("On Youth"), sung by Mr Heppner, I was hearing more satisfactorily, but this was not necessarily an improvement, because Mr Heppner's singing was far too dutiful. I wanted to hear Ian Bostridge instead; Mr Bostridge lets go in the way that this music demands. Mr Heppner did a fine job with the mercilessly high textures of Der Trunkene, but he did no job at all of imparting the drunkard's recklessness, which ought to make this song, for all its diatonic affirmation, utterly terrifying. Ben Heppner was working too hard.
I wondered - and I hope that someone will be able to enlighten me - if Ms von Otter had ever sung this music before. That she got better as she went along might not mean anything, because the music cuts deeper as it goes along, and certainly the last number, Der Abschied ("The Farewell"), which lasts as long as the other five songs together, is gratefully scored: it is not until the very end that the singer has to compete with flat-out orchestral playing. Indeed, this is Mahler's most operatic moment, in that it is a dramatic scene, not a song. Two mandarins are exchanging farewells; one has almost certainly been banished. In the first part of the piece, one of the men comments on the gathering dusk and wonders where his friend is; the music is charged with broken, halting phrases that collect only when beauty is mentioned; in the second part, this music will come to sing of the beauty of ever-renewing spring. In between, the singer sits down while the orchestra meditates on one of Mahler's long-limbed, slow-moving processions. It ought to sound like a dirge, but it doesn't; what's almost worse, everyone is still alive and feeling. Then the singer announces the arrival of the parting friend. The poetry here, in German, is transcendent, and I hesitate to give it in English.
Du, mein Freund,
Mir war auf dieser Welt das Glück nicht hold!
("Oh, my friend, Fortune was not kind to me in this world.")
Somehow, improbably, this remark comes across as a stoic observation, not as a complaint, and we correspondingly rush in with indignation on the speaker's behalf. Then the spring music kicks in, and Das Lied von der Erde ends in sublime diminuendo.
I'm doing a fine job of talking myself into remembering an amazing concert, but it was amazing only after the intermission. The overture Carl Maria von Weber's opera, Oberon, was perfectly played, but I'm not sure that I see the point of the exercise. Weber is composer with whom we have not yet come to terms; he was far more influential (and popular) than his great contemporary, Beethoven, and was also one of the kingpins of the "Silly Quarter" - the twenty-five years between 1815 and 1840 when almost everything in Europe was ridiculous. Weber can be unbelievably funny, although we can never be sure, as we can with Rossini, that he meant to be. The two clarinet concertos and the Konzertstück for piano and orchestra partake of the very high order of fun that Sir Arthur Sullivan turned into a reliable commodity. But the overtures are warm-up pieces, difficult to play and empty of calories. The Oberon Overture was played, needless to say, faultlessly. I wish that I could say that it wasn't played pointlessly.
Of Elliott Carter's Variations for Orchestra I will say nothing more than that it was obviously played very well. How I can make this assessment of a composition that not only lacked but mocked conventional musical coherence I have no idea, but I will venture the following: there is an internal logic to the Variations that, while not accessible to listeners habituated to classical-Western patterns of consequence (that is, of one thing following another), is nevertheless certified by the work's articulate scoring. You know that it's there, but you can't enjoy it. This is the bitter medicine of modernism, and I find it next to impossible to believe that works like this will be performed in fifty years before the general musical public. Mr Carter was on hand to receive the house's very warm applause; at 97, it was brave-to-idiotic of him to venture out on a day of slush and ice. But he seemed very pleased by the performance, and that is what I will try to remember. (January 2005)
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