(Along with Bernstein’s final recording, best of the best in Mahler 2. And completely different from one another.)
Fischer and Budapest: The achievement of Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra is singular in our time. In an era when all the great new ensembles are chamber orchestras, early music, contemporary music, chamber music, anything except full symphony orchestras, Ivan Fischer created what most would never even dare - a truly great orchestra from nothing that can stand with the greatest and oldest in the world. Was it their finest night in the concert hall? Certainly not, but the achievement was there for all to hear. Fischer and the BFO did two concerts over the course of a single night. The first concert was not quite the revelation for which I’d hoped, the second one was. Fischer began with an orchestral arrangement of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz. I am not a Liszt fan on my most charitable days, but there is something about an orchestral arrangement of the Mephisto Waltz that feels too lumbering by half. Even in these nimble hands, it’s just clumsy. Then came a far better treat: Liszt’s Totentanz - a superbly crafted 20-minute piece of virtuoso fluff for piano and orchestra. The Croatian pianist, Dejan Lazic, is an ideal Lisztian: fearlessly ascending to flights of bravura vulgarity that would terrify a more timid pianist. Totentanz is neither deep nor particularly great, but it is a very well constructed piece of music that’s entertaining as hell. Bravo to all involved. But the piece everybody really cared about was the Mahler, a composer for whom Fischer is compiling a reputation second to none in his generation. Unfortunately, this was not the revelation for which I’d hoped. Fischer has conducted perhaps the greatest Mahler 2 on record, so I had enormous hopes for this Mahler 1. Alas, for all his fire, Ivan Fischer is not a died-in-the-wool Romantic at heart. Mahler 2 is a piece based on effects, and it requires iron control to bring them off. Mahler 1 is a more natural (and to my ears, greater) piece of music, and requires the ebb and flow which only spontaneous musicianship can bring. There was freedom and rubato aplenty in this performance, but it felt imposed from without.Fischer was unable to do bring that off, that is, until the finale. I’m not sure I have ever heard the 20-minute finale done better. Suddenly, the musicianship felt spontaneous and right.
The revelations didn’t end there. Next came a ‘by-request’ concert in which audience members were given a catalogue of 285 pieces and three numbers for were drawn out of a lottery from a tuba. After the three lucky audience members chose their favorites, the audience got to vote as a whole. And so we were then treated to a battle between the Prommers and the Classic FM audience, with the sweet sounds of the Prommers winning out every time. So rather than the usual Classical Top 40, we got Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta, Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, Berlioz’s Rakoczy March, Strauss’s Music of the Spheres Waltz and the fastest ever performance of Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture we shall ever hear. What amazes is that though none of these works were rehearsed (indeed, it’s probable some were not played in years), Fischer took absolutely enormous interpretive risks in each of them. The results were not always note perfect, they didn’t need to be. The raw nature of this concert seemed to spur the players to intensity that much greater. In its own way, this was a revelatory concert.\
(It’s already up. Great work from the LSO chorus that quickly goes awry as the performance continues. The wrong Colin Davis showed up. This is not the work of a great conductor. Below, is the work of a very great one.)
Colin Davis does the Missa Solemnis - The pantheon of the ‘Great Conductors’ generally requires two things for admittance:
1. You look to be on death’s door.
2. The utter irrationality of critics.
The treatment of great conductors as musical gods is always unhealthy, but never moreso than the arbitrary gerontocracy that grants special musical powers to certain aged conductors in their dotage. The process by which conductors are deified is utterly irrational. Performers who were routinely slammed in the press ten years before could suddenly do no wrong. It happened to Leonard Bernstein around 1980, Herbert von Karajan around 1985, Georg Solti and Pierre Boulez around 1990, Bernard Haitink and Claudio Abbado around 2000, Daniel Barenboim and Charles Mackerras around 2005. Today, for whatever reason, the current pantheon of those whose coverage has a halo around it include Abbado, Haitink, Barenboim, James Levine, Pierre Boulez, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and perhaps Riccardo Muti, Mariss Jansons, Michael Tilson Thomas and John Eliot Gardiner. Why these conductors rather than Neeme Jarvi, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Herbert Blomstedt, Christoph Eschenbach, Kurt Masur, Michael Gielen, David Zinman, Charles Dutoit, Yuri Temirkanov, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Jiri Behlolavek, Georges Pretre, Andre Previn, Lorin Maazel, Leonard Slatkin, Roger Norrington, Franz Bruggen, William Christie and Rene Jacobs? I have no idea. Of the conductors who get the royal treatment, I think only Harnoncourt and MTT deserve it, if any. The rest seem to me no better than any on the list below. Jarvi, Eschenbach, Rozhdestvensky and Jacobs are perhaps better than any on the top list. Yet the critics have spoken: This one, not the other. Why? Who knows.
It would now seem that Colin Davis has ascended to living god status. I suppose that with the death of Charles Mackerras, this was inevitable. Davis was always the bigger ‘star’, but Charles Mackerras is one of the greatest conductors of all time, Colin Davis is merely ‘sometimes’ one of the all time greats.
On this night he was not one of the greats, regardless of what reviewers say. Colin Davis made two respectable but somewhat dull recordings of the Missa Solemnis. In 35 years, his concept hasn’t changed much. It is at times beautiful, and also big and bloated in that Victorian 3000-musician way. It sounds like an old Karl Richter Handel performance. It has grandeur aplenty, and some very beautiful moments. But in no way is this recognizable Beethoven, even if your preference is for the old Furtwangler/Klemperer type of performances. Davis is a fine conductor of the Beethoven symphonies. But there is no Beethoven symphony, and hardly any other work in the canon, for which bloat is more lethal than in the Missa Solemnis. The grandeur grows exhausting under the weight of all that profundity. For all his faults, give me John Eliot Gardiner's Missa any day of the week over this. Give me Toscanini, give me Klemperer, give me Szell, give me Bernstein, give me Michael Gielen. And if I'm in a mood to require the Beethoven performers of today to conform to a Teutonism that’s been anachronistic for a half-century, give me Barenboim.
One must give credit where its due. And Davis’s patience reaped wonderful dividends in the work’s quiet sections, which have rarely sounded more beautiful. Unfortunately, there was little of the Beethovenian power to carry us from one lyrical section to the next. The Gloria should launch us like a rocket to heaven, but it’s difficult to ignite a wet noodle. And the Credo simply sounded under-rehearsed; with all sorts of sloppy entrances in the final fugue in spite of a glacially slow tempo. I have loved Colin Davis for years, and I wish I could say that this was a performance worthy of his best. But it simply wasn’t.
(Pittsburgh’s “vulgar” orchestra) Pittsburgh Symphony Rant: So if I was mildly irritated by the reception of Colin Davis’s Missa Solemnis, I was genuinely incensed by the reception of the Pittsburgh Symphony. If Yuri Temirkanov or Valery Gergiev had led their orchestras in the exact same performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, detail for detail, which Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony gave, it would have been hailed as ‘the only true way to play Tchaikovsky....an authentically Russian approach that puts our own orchestras to shame.” But the reward Honeck and the PSO get for emulating the Russian style so well is to be accused of American vulgarity. If Ivan Fischer or Simon Rattle had led their orchestras in a carbon copy of Honeck’s Mahler 5, the reviews would have been ecstatic about the “revelatory new insights found in this overplayed warhorse.” And yet again, we read dismissals of the Pittsburgh Symphony as a superficial American virtuoso band, more concerned with loudness than probity.
I find it difficult to believe that the orchestra of Otto Klemperer, William Steinberg and Mariss Jansons could be accused of lacking probity, especially with Manfred Honeck at the helm. The Pittsburgh Symphony is a rarity in America, a orchestra of the rust-belt that is thriving more than ever. The Philadelphia Orchestra now pays the price for piggybacking on past glory, but the PSO keeps standards as high as ever and finds themselves a true Maestro in Honeck who is both a great musician and a true music director who happily plays the ambassador to their city while primo don conductors like Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti refuse to do the ambassadorship it takes to keep music alive in America (in Muti’s defense, he looks as though he may be changing his tune in Chicago). Yet the reward for the PSO’s accomplishment is to be dismissed as a provincial American band more concerned with technical showboating than depth of insight. I don’t know another word for this than anti-Americanism.
Then again, there is a lot in these concerts to carp about. They just weren’t the things about which the critics sniped. Honeck’s fascination with Walter Braunfels mystifies me. Braunfels is a generic throwback to early 20th-century Austro-German music - Richard Strauss without the originality. Furthermore, the violin concerto written by Wolfgang Rihm for Anne-Sophie Mutter is simply ghastly - even an atonal composer must provide something original in harmony, rhythm, melody and form. But Rihm’s music is just noodling. Wolfgang Rihm continues to be an Emperor ohne Clothes.
Helene Grimaud’s performance of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto was unpromising: as though this were yet another performance of a work everybody knows far too well. The opening and final movements should bewitch every time we hear them, yet they sounded like just another performance. But I have rarely heard the still more magical second movement sound more poetic - Grimaud’s sensitivity matched the brawn of the Pittsburgh Symphony perfectly: it finally sounded like a true dialogue between Orpheus and Hades.
In any event, the Pittsburgh Symphony’s performances of the big pieces were absolutely magnificent. The Tchaikovsky reminded me of Willem Mengelberg’s old recording of seventy years ago. No, it was not the most subtle performance ever heard. But come on people, this is Tchaikovsky 5! If you can’t cut loose in this piece, you can’t cut loose. It was a performance after the manner of Svetlanov and Koussevitzky (Nikolai Golovanov would have made the PSO performance sound downright restrained...and so would Leonard Bernstein). The range of dynamics was absolutely extraordinary, with incredible control from the softest pianissimo to the loudest brass passage. Yes, the brass section was unsubtle and loud. But so are Russian brass, and I refuse to believe that Tchaikovsky ever intended anything else. Honeck provided an enormous variation in tempo, and the end result was a performance that surely anyone who loves music can appreciate. Listen to it again.
The following night, we heard a Mahler 5 for the ages. Again, I thought of Mengelberg (who only recorded the Adagietto) but also of Bernstein’s late 80’s Vienna Philharmonic performance and Barbirolli’s recording dating shortly before his death in 1970. The sprawl of Mahler 5 was met on its own terms. There was no attempt to portray this work as anything but a rambling 70-minute piece that can only justify its length by being compulsively fascinating; and that’s precisely what Honeck and the PSO provided. The full lavish range of Mahler’s orchestral color was here, along with a complete lack of shyness about portraying Mahler’s most outrageous effects.
Perhaps anti-Americanism is the wrong word, perhaps it’s only due to a difference in temperaments. Clearly, if England’s model for how to play Mahler is Bernard Haitink, the English will not be accustomed to the Leonard Bernstein approach. Yet I can’t help thinking that if Honeck gave the exact same performances with the Czech Philharmonic, the reaction would have been 180 degrees different.