Barber of Seville Overture
It was Inauguration Day, and I desperately needed a musical balm which perhaps my favorite symphony would give me. In so many words, it sucked. Johannes Debus is a superficial conductor who played Brahms with all the depth of a generic symphony by an unknown composer. This was 'revisionist Brahms' that copies all the superficial qualities of Weingartner with none of Weingartner's ability to get across the essence that belies the elegance. I was so disappointed that I nearly drove up to Pittsburgh a few weeks later to hear Manfred Honeck doubtless show how the piece should be done. The concerto soloist was the extremely French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, who has seemingly recorded every piano work ever written. Except for a very few gorgeous pianissimo sounds in the cadenza, his contribution was barely more inspiring.
January 21st: The Threepenny Opera - Spotlighter's Theater
The less said, the better.
January 24th: Philadelphia Orchestra & Yannick Nezet-Seguin - Kennedy Center
It doesn't get much better than this. Note for note, there hasn't been a better concert I've gone to in this concert-filled month. The Philadelphia Orchestra is not the Philadelphia Orchestra of old, it still sounds like Riccardo Muti's orchestra - Stokowski or Ormandy would never have allowed for those whip-crack fortissimos pummeling you between the eyes. Except for its virtuoso excellence, you wouldn't be able to pick the Philadelphia Orchestra out of a lineup. The orchestras of Cleveland and Boston still retain something of their old sound, but it seems that the velvet of Philadelphia's golden era is lost to history.
Yet everything, even so, was a thing of wonder. Perhaps the Philadelphia Orchestra, probably the first American orchestra to achieve a worldwide reputation, is undergoing a second golden era, entirely different from its first. When you hear the very best performers, you remember precisely what it is that the live experience gives that recordings never can. There are certain musical colors that you can never hear on a recording. Neither the Baltimore Symphony or the National Symphony, good as they both can be, give you those numinous moments with any frequency. You can only hear this kind of music making in the flesh. For the second time this season, the Philadelphia Orchestra provided them for these ears in spades. From the very first notes of Lili Boulanger's all too rarely heard music, you knew that you were in the presence of a musical greatness. It continued even continued with Louis Lortie's Chopin. I am no fan of the Chopin piano concertos, but Lortie made a 40 minute concerto seem like 25 minutes. The accompaniment of the Philadelphia Orchestra was such velvet that you think to yourself that maybe, just maybe, they still have that velvet in their veins that made Rachmaninov himself swoon.
But even music lovers less ambivalent about Chopin don't drive an hour and a half to hear the First Piano Concerto. I went to hear Petrushka, and it was damned magnificent. The numinous moments where everywhere - the huge eruptions of bass, the all-too-spooky entrance of Petrushka's ghost, the organgrind whose piccolo decorations sounded exactly like squeaky gears, the whiz-bang orchestral kaleidescope in which every note and dynamic nuance registers precisely at Yannick Nezet-Seguin's top speeds. At times, you wished that YNS would, as Dudmel did in his very different performance, shape and bend the phrases more. Petrushka can be a human statement, much more affecting than a showpiece, and yet what a showpiece! No recording can thrill like this!
January 26th: National Symphony - Christoph Eschenbach
Weinberg Violin Concerto Gidon Kremer Soloist
Shostakovich Symphony no. 8
There was simply no way that this concert, good as it was, will register in my memory in the same manner which do the concerts which bookended it. The National Symphony is a decent orchestra, and Christoph Eschenbach, when on his game, is as good as any conductor in the history of music. But with revelations on either side of this, a very good Shostakovich 8 (a work I adore) just doesn't measure up.
Even the presence of Gidon Kremer doesn't do much to liven things up. I highly doubt that Moises (I'm not going to look up the spelling of his Russian name...) Weinberg as great a composer as people begin to allege, and yet, even if it sounds almost indistinguishable from Shostakovich, it's not truly bad Shostakovich. Few composers do their best work in their violin concertos - even a lot of immortals phoned it in. So I look forward to making the acquaintance of a composer whom, were I a Soviet citizen in the 1960's, would have probably seemed to me a perfectly legitimate candidate of the pantheon.
Eschenbach was, apparently, his usual slow self. 75 minutes by the clock. You could have fooled me. I was expecting things to feel much slower than they were. The slow movements went by in no time. The soft dynamics he got in the first half of the opening were truly breathtaking. It was only the middle scherzi which were a bit ragged. You can always tell in an Eschenbach performance which sections get all the rehearsal time - and it's almost always the slowest movements. Eschenbach is, for all his many weaknesses, a recreative musician of the pantheon who brings insights to everything he touches. In Eschenbach's presence, I finally felt as though I got a handle on the troublesomely incoherent last movement, in which the snare drums seem to signal an air bombing interruption of what sounds like people resuming normal life with its enjoyments. The final passage, which Ken Woods called the bleakest C-Major in the world, seemed to me like gratefulness, perhaps the gratefulness of a man thankful to have lived through another day. In a week without the Philadelphia Orchestra or the Staatskapelle Berlin, I'd have been thrilled to take these priceless (for me) insights home and leave it there. But this was no normal week.
January 27th: Staatskapelle Berlin - Daniel Barenboim
Mozart Sinfonia Concertante
Bruckner Symphony no. 7
Forget about that lackluster Sinfonia Concertante except to say that the very attractive principals from the Berlin orchestra who played the solo parts made me wonder how many couples have had sex in the auditorium of Carnegie Hall.
I doubt I will ever hear a Bruckner 7 to match that in my life. Barenboim's newest recording of Bruckner 7 is, along with #5, the highlight of the cycle (at least in the symphonies I care about). The Carnegie performance was even better. Of course, a few quibbles here and there - particularly the fact that the cymbal player was slightly off on his crash (You had one job!!!), and of course, even in the Staatskapelle Berlin, the brass are too loud, occasionally I wish Barenboim would have allowed for still more tempo flexibility in the Adagio (as is his wont). And yet, everything else... The flexibility of tempos, the way sections of the ensemble phrased as one, the gemutlicher warmth of the sound. Barenboim, in his greatest performances, is an artist of improvisation. He paints with dabs of orchestral color, a little more violin here and less there, signaling to a wind player to play as though they are interrupting the thought of a string section. He hears the harmonic tensions in a score on such a fundamental level that he knows how to guide Measure 40 of the opening to obtain a better result in Measure 220 of the finale.
There were so many numinous moments throughout the performance, but there was one particular type of numinosity that was so revelatory that I question if I ever understood Bruckner until I heard (rather, felt) these moments.
Why is the brass in Bruckner so loud? What purpose does it serve to drown out the orchestra as he does? It's not enough to say that Bruckner created an organ-like orchestra, though that gets us a part of the way there. When you hear the brass in the lower octaves on recordings, you all too rarely hear the high winds peaking out in the octaves over them. The high winds are there to shape the overtones. You don't so much hear them as you feel them. In truth, you have no idea if you're actually hearing what you think you're hearing, or if it's psychosomatic. All you know that the winds are there, and it creates a kind of psychedelic hallucination, as the high notes of the winds peak out from the mass of sound like beams of light.
January 28th: Staatskapelle Berlin - Daniel Barenboim
Bruckner: Symphony no. 8
As boring as the night before was lifechanging. I don't want to talk about it...
February 6th: Budapest Festival Orchestra: Ivan Fischer
Beethoven Symphonies 8 and 9
Ivan Fischer is not a natural Beethoven conductor - he wants Beethoven to be Mozart or Schubert. He does not have the killer instinct, the wild animal willing to forego subtlety - if you don't subscribe to Beethoven's metronome markings, and Fischer's clearly happy to follow the old Austro-German ways, then the blunt force which the Austro-German greats brought to Beethoven becomes even more important. When the great unreformed Beethovenians: Szell, Karajan, Klemperer, Wand, Schuricht, the Kleibers, Bernstein, Masur, Tennstedt, Blomstedt, Schmidt-Isserstedt, even Furtwangler (some would say especially) conducted Beethoven, they knew that the force of Beethoven depended not on originality of conception, but the unwillingness to pull even a single punch. If you were not going to generate momentum through the quickness of tempo and articulation, you have to have not just an enormous, deep, bass heavy sound - which the Budapest Festival Orchestra possesses to a level that equals nearly any orchestra of the German-speaking world, but the willingness to use all of it. Fischer, known for his unorthodox seating arrangements, put the timpani at the front of the orchestra between the violin sections for both symphonies. The timpani has an extremely prominent part in both pieces, but Fischer put the timpanist in front only for the timpanist to play his instrument with the delicacy of a triangle. The spirit with which the timpani gives the rhythmic momentum to Beethoven's music was completely lost. It might have been more to the point to place the timpanist offstage and have him wail on his instrument at a consistent fortississimo.
This is not to say that Fischer's Beethoven was ever any less than exquisite, and sometimes truly brilliant in its insights. The sheer proliferation of nuances was mindboggling, the way he accelarated into the beginning of the eighth's scherzo, the thunderous way he made the strings roll their thirty-second notes in the 'metronome' movement - if only he did the same at the piece's climaxes... It particularly became a problem in the last movement of the 8th symphony, which Fischer took at a tempo that by the standards of 2017 was shocking in its leisure.
But there were two insights into Beethoven's Ninth that I would have travelled much farther afield than New York if I knew I'd gather them. The first was Fischer's brilliantly unorthodox treatment of the first movement's gigantic recapitulation into the tonic. Conductors of a spontaneous disposition tend to slow down to capture the full weight of the orchestral sound, but Fischer sped up. It was brilliant, shocking, utterly unexpected, and felt completely inorganic - which I suppose was the point. The episode did not feel like a logical extension of what came before, but an utter interruption - completely apiece with the Storm movement of the Pastoral Symphony. As far as I was concerned, it was an absolutely revolutionary way to view this passage and an absolutely valid one. I will never look at Beethoven's Ninth the same way.
Fischer is a musician given to lots of spontaneous sounding moments, but he is precisely the opposite of a spontaneous musician. Every interpretive nuance is clearly long thought over, rethought, tested in rehearsal, performed, then retested in a different manner. He's like a musical chemist, trying to find the precise formula to get a magical chemical change.
And the chemical compound he came up with for the finale was so extraordinary as to seem like alchemy. Even before the Ninth began, I heard audience members say 'Where the hell is the chorus?' Having read old reviews of Fischer's Ninths I had a vague idea of what was coming. I imagined that the chorus would be sitting in the first few rows. But I did not expect for the entire chorus to be completely dispersed around the concert hall (if you can call Geffen Hall that...), because there are no words for the risk it takes for a chorus to do this with a touring orchestra when they must have had one rehearsal at most to get it right.
It was a gambit of foolhardy courage, and the payoff was transcendent in a manner that the rest of the concert was not. No doubt, the symbolism of this was apparent to all, this this music of humanity was not meant as a ritual to enact on stage but an inspirational challenge to live more valuably for ourselves and those we love. But in practice, it felt different than that, and still more valuable. This immersion felt less like a traditional performance of Beethoven's as it did Tallis's Spem in Allium, as though angels and ghosts of humanity were bathing us in benevolence and forgiveness. It felt not just like an embrace by humanity, but an embrace by the beyond (Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen...) At first, I was so amused that I was half-temped to stand up and sing the bass part myself - nobody knows me in New York concert halls so it's not like I'd have embarrassed myself in front of anyone, but the sound was far too beautiful to spoil - both utterly intimate because of the dominance of the singers' voices nearest to us, and completely choral because of the blend of the chorus's voices in the background.
Fischer is a detail conductor. He rarely, in my experience, gives a front to back reading in which every single detail feels wholly convincing in the manner that a conductor like Mariss Jansons does (or used to...). He does not go for 'ultimate performances', he trusts that eventually his conception will win you over emotionally, and in the meantime, searches for intellectual nuances to point up. He is an incredibly odd mixture of good taste with eccentricity, and he is avant-garde as only a thoroughgoing traditionalist can be. There has never been nor ever could be another conductor quite like him.