Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Orchestral Review Dump (more reviews added in coming weeks)

Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nezet Seguin Tchaikovsky/Bartok - Yannick Nezet-Seguin is so unbelievably gifted and charismatic, it's doubly a shame he's clearly such a superficial personality. Perhaps he's the perfect man to lead the Philadelphia Orchestra into a long-term renaissance - the Philly O was the pioneer of the orchestra as a luxury product. Stokowski performed all manner of new music in his twenty-five years in Philly, but one could make the argument that it was in 1910's, 20's, 30's Philadelphia that classical music making first became more an exotic media event than a way of life. Perhaps such a development was inevitable in America, but if we have anyone to blame for it, blame the city of Philly and their orchestra which is greater than it deserves to be. Philly has apparently longed for all manner of deeper conductors to be their MD over the years, Simon Rattle, Riccardo Chailly, Vladimir Jurowski... Can you really imagine any of them in Philly? They hired Christoph Eschenbach, who for all his faults can 'out-deep' any baton-wielder in the world, and the result was apparently a disaster.

I have faith that other young'un Maestrini based in America like Andris Nelsons and Gustavo Dudamel can grow into great musicians. I have faith in YNS's skill, but he makes music like a person who banks on the fact that charm can get him everywhere in life. What if it can't?

In music for which charm works its magic - non-German Opera, fin de siecle French rep, YNS is magnificent. Swan Lake is perfect for him, Petrushka was nearly perfect for him (extraordinary as it was, it was missing a Russian exoticism that Dudamel provided in google quantity). Some people love his Bruckner and Mahler, I have yet to be impressed by it. But Bluebeard's Castle? Please. Bluebeard's Castle should never be taken on by a musician who is well-adjusted. There are bigger operatic tragedies, even among the one-acters, but there has never been an opera that can match it for sheer glum feeling. What better way to celebrate my 35th birthday...

Glum, yes, and with an exceedingly perky conductor to warp it into something it's not, but it was a chance to hear the Rolls Royce of Orchestras play a daunting score I adore. And oh my god, has anyone ever heard that level of clarity in Bartok? I barely remember anything about Michelle De Young or John Relyea's performances, and all I can say for YNS's contribution is that he made Bluebeard's Castle feel like a 1930's B-Movie creeper played with a fantastic sound system - this was an entirely too healthy Bluebeard, fast tempos and the loudest sounds I've ever heard an orchestra make. The New York Times loved it, but this performance seemed to beckon to me by saying 'listen to how ghooooulish this is.' If Ravel had composed Bluebeard (a Borgesian idea I suppose...), it would have sounded like what we heard. But for all the performance's loudness, the violence of Bluebeard's Castle never came through. Bluebeard's Castle can never wink, because it is something far more quiet and inward. Bluebeard's had a number of podium masters over the years who understand how to dig deep into its expressionistic gloom, (Top 5: Dohnanyi, Dorati, Sawallisch, Solti, Kertesz but more in his case for his singers) and understand that there is something far subtler and more devastating at work. The score exists in that expressionistic neither region between depression, eroticism, and violence. That dark well of the spirit, the animal that appears without warning, so ready to swallow its prey that by the time the victim sees the beast, it doesn't have a chance. Bartok paints with the orchestra in the colors of Grosz and Dix and Schiele and Kokoschka. There was no expressionistic opera composer equivalent to Wagner, but if you combine the results of semi-expressionist works like Pelleas, Salome, Elektra, Bluebeard, Makropulos Case, Wozzeck, Lulu, and the 4 of Schoenberg, you get an achievement that can hold its own to Wagner. Perhaps a style that is so dark that no artist can keep it up for the entirety of his career, and eventually everybody (except Schoenberg) has to lighten up...

Christoph von shows how it's done...

Baltimore Symphony Concerts (more added in the coming weeks with NSO concerts too...)

Nicholas McGegan: Gluck/Schubert/Mozart/Mendelssohn - Most of it was great. A great violinist in Hakan Kraggerrud who managed the near-impossible feat of making Mozart's 3rd violin concerto interesting, Schubert;s Overture in the Italian Style - hardly Schubert's best piece but rhythmically precise and punchy in the way Schubert needs while letting the harmonies emerge and the melodies breathe. Some delightful small Rameau numbers from his opera Dardanus which made a fantastic case for Baroque composers other than Bach.

But then came a depressing moment when I realized that I'm sick of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony. It's an exercise in agility needs enormous amounts of rehearsal, it needs a conductor with a fantastically clear beat, and even on the rare moments it's played well, it's an astonishingly trivial piece of music. A good performance of it needs crystalline technical acumen, and it yields very few rewards deeper than its technique.

The goodness of the program's first half was purchased at the fact that the Italian Symphony got a leaden, lifeless performance in which tempos slowed in the fast movements and slow passages passed without nary a thought about phrasing and expressivity.

Here's a performance so good it can convince you the Italian Symphony might be better than it seems...

Yan Pascal Tortelier: Dukas/Chausson/Ravel/Stravinsky

I was really, really, REALLY looking forward to this program. Unfortunately, it had nearly the exact same problem as the program before.

Yan Pascal Tortelier, so far as I know, nearly became the BSO music director at least once, maybe twice, and who knows, perhaps he turned down an offer to be their Principal Guest too. Whether Baltimore or anywhere else, he is as beloved a guest conductor as the world has. He's musical royalty, his father, whom he looks exactly like, was Paul Tortelier, one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century. He goes around the world, playing the repertoire favorites, occasionally using the credit he earns to introduce the world to less familiar pieces of music. He can be magnificent, but you have to figure that a world traveller has to phone it in as often as he catches fire. He beats time with his bare hands with as little emphasis as a jazz band director (or Boulez and Harnoncourt), and if he feels like it, he dances around to indicate the character of the musical moment in a manner orchestras seem to find very inspiring.

He's as far from a musical drill sergeant as the podium world gets, and seems perfectly content to let music breathe to its fullest potential. If the tempo slows down, so be it, if ensemble hangs by a thread, who cares. It's perfectly fine if there's enough rehearsal time for the orchestra to acclimate to what will happen in concert, but if there isn't, hoo boy...

The Sorcerer's Apprentice was clearly well-rehearsed. The already slow tempo got a little slower as the performance went on, nothing was particularly precise, but every phrase seemed to have a newly minted emphasis, an inner voice pointed up, a special color, hundreds of details a standard performance wouldn't make you notice. You'd never think this music could sparkle at so slow a tempo, yet it practically gleamed.

Augustin Hadelich is one of the world's great young violinists, and in these small French pieces he lived up to his enormous reputation. The problem, for me at least, is that Chausson's Poeme is a truly dull piece of music - generically pretty but little more. Ravel's Tzigane on the other hand, is a genuine masterpiece in miniature. Another of Ravel's dozens upon dozens of perfectly cut jewels. The first half-or-so of the piece the violin plays alone, and then the orchestra and violin both have nearly impossible jobs to fulfill. The violinist, impossible technical feats, the orchestra to keep up with him. Tortelier, even with his lassez-faire approach to ensemble, was right with Hadelich.

Which made the final piece on the program, which should be the crowning glory, even more disappointing. A Petrushka performance should always feel like a party, and yet this was a party that consisted of five nerdy dudes who don't know each other sitting on the couch. Ensemble was embarrassingly ragged, which would of course be excusable if there were any character in the playing, but there was none, nor was there much indication that there should be from Tortelier. What a disappointment from such a wonderful conductor.

Tortelier when he's on

Lodivic Morlot - Paganini/Berlioz: I had no idea whom Ray Chen was before tonight, but this is clearly a violinist determined to be as big as Itzhak Perlman. His technique is fallible, which in Paganini is both understandable due to Paganini's impossibile demands and unforgivable due to Paganini's substancelessness. But Chen's communicative energy is infinite, he gave an introduction to the piece that was as substanceless as it was clearly designed to establish rapport with the audience. After the 40 minute concerto, for which the violinist basically plays alone with an occasional chord from the orchestra, Chen played two encores, each of which were well over five minutes long. A Paganini caprice - I think the eighth, and a movement from the Ysaye sonatas. I don't know if this violinist has the goods to be a superstar, but he certainly has the ambition, and could easily drive himself to get there.

I would also like to hear a performance of the Symphonie Fantastique in my adult lifetime in which something besides the last two movements are rehearsed (top 5 recordings: Munch/Paris, Bernstein/Paris, Dudamel/Paris, Monteux/San Francisco, Gardiner, HM's to Norrington/London, Paray/Paris, Boulez/Cleveland, Muti/Philadelphia, Munch/Ten other performances). As a teenager I was fortunate enough to not only hear David Zinman play the piece, in which he excelled, but also Mariss Jansons, which was a once-in-a-lifetime, bone-chilling experience from a conductor who has lost the special something he had before he became a generational superstar.

Lodivic Morlot can get a very impressive sound from the orchestra, and the loud moments and crescendos could probably be heard in the next county. But I can't say there was much to otherwise recommend this performance. The first three movements might as well have been conducted by a robot. I was grateful to hear the third movement taken at a heady clip to offset the boredom it sets in so often, but only in the last two movements heard we something that sounded like anybody cared. Ensemble tightened, the sound became more focused, the dynamic range extended. I know an all-flash conductor when I hear one, and this was a performance designed to get a standing ovation and then be forgotten. Morlot has clearly done some admirable work with the Seattle Symphony, like a complete Dutilleux cycle, but if he's leaving after eight years, he probably only did it to chase larger-name orchestras.

Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony doing the Symphonie Fantastique for all time. 

Marin Alsop - Part/Stravinsky/Rachmaninov: When Marin Alsop is good, she is really really good. I think we all wish it would happen more often.

Once a year, I understand the phenomenon that is Arvo Part, and then the appeal of it disappears. Clearly, he's beloved for his predictability, his meditativeness, his unquestioning faith, his lack of demands upon the listener. Once a year, his music seems to cast a spell on me. The next day, I put the music on again, and could scream from boredom.

But the Credo was written by the young Part, still finding his musical voice, in the midst of transition from twelve-tone music to his later style. Building a third layer on top of the Bach 1st WTC prelude and the Gounod Ave Maria, and contrasting it with the 'evils' of twelve-tone and aleatoric music. As dry as I often find it, I can't say that I find either style to be 'evil.' And yet, it was simply used as a manifestation of pain and suffering, and did a wonderfully moving job as such. The work can't possibly make the same impact on recording that it does live, but the live experience was unforgettable. In many ways the singular concert hall experience I've had in 2017.

For the first time, I found tears in my eyes while listening to a composer who seems to provoke tears in so many others. This was music of an unpredictability found in late-Soviet cohorts like Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Schchedrin, Penderecki, Balakauskas, but never, so I thought, in Part. Perhaps it was thinking of '68 and the Prague Spring and the general air of resistance that surrounded the world in that year, or my own turn to religion in the last two years, but it was precisely the piece of music I needed to hear in 2017.

To my astonishment, I'd never heard the Symphony of Psalms live until Friday, and objectively, I know that the Symphony of Psalms is a towering masterpiece, one which I love deeply (top 5 recordings: Ancerl, Gardiner, Stravinsky I, Preston, Celibidache) but even though the BSO and the UMD Concert Choir and Alsop gave a very good performance in many ways, there is simply no way its austerities could compete in my mind with the unexpectedness of Part's Mahlerian theatricality. It seemed apiece with still later Stravinsky, giving no compromise in its hermeticisms to the demands of an audience not in a frame of mind to apprehend its difficulties. I hope I can hear this piece I love again live in a better frame of mind...

Symphony of Psalms - eternity in twenty minutes...

I honestly thought I'd made my peace with Rachmaninov's second symphony. A few months ago I heard a few performances that convinced me that this music is something other than predictable (Top 5 - Svetlanov, Sanderling, Gergiev in London, Pletnev II, N Jarvi in Amsterdam, honorable mention to Rozhdestvensky in London and Golovanov's bewildering weirdness... - sometimes I really love this piece), expressing emotions in nothing but their most obvious and insipid states. And yet, here I was, rolling my eyes yet again at Rachmaninov's sentimental slop. His technique is faultless. I know this piece nearly by memory and yet I find new formal relationships every time I listen. Rachmaninov constructs absolutely perfect musical paragraphs, but why don't they say more than they do?

It's doubly a shame, because the BSO's performance was as good as it was ever going to be. Anne Midgette didn't much care for it and blamed the performance for what seems to me to be Rachmaninov's fault. As a musician, there is little you can do but be unashamed of Rachmaninov's sentimentality and throw caution to the wind. Except for a few awkward rubatos in certain places, this was a completely straightforward, no muss, performance. It's not a lousy piece of music, but it's one of those weird pieces whose greatness will only reveal itself when you wake up on the east side of your bed. 

How to play Rach 2 like the great symphony it sometimes seems...

Markus Stenz: Mendelssohn/Ravel/Stravinsky

Let's skip the (excellent) first half of the concert. Even though it had two favorite pieces of mine - Ravel's Piano Concerto (the 'two-hand' one...) and Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyages Overture. In most ways, they're better pieces of music than the main course, but in the face of a Firebird of such molten power, all I can say is that a master was on the podium, and the Finnish pianist, Juho Pohjonen, is going to have a major career. Let's get straight to the point, which is that I doubt either I or you will ever hear The Firebird played better than we heard it this weekend.

Excepting perhaps its difficulty, I don't understand why more conductors don't do The Firebird complete. It's an absolute feast of music, and there. To be sure there are a few duds among recordings, even among the greats - Colin Davis, Charles Dutoit, and Michael Tilson Thomas, all of whose recordings are praised to the skies, and Mariss Jansons, whom I heard play The Firebird with vividness of which I thought I'd never hear the equal until this weekend. 

Nearly every conductor who takes on the complete score seems to make it into their own. Best of all is perhaps Pierre Boulez, not a musician I generally warm to - nor one to whom I'm meant. Per usual, he takes music which others make shimmer and put it into a marvel of pristine clarity. In Boulez's all too precise hands, the sense of theater is banished. Moments that pack a thrill and wallop a minute are deliberately underplayed, and in its place is a human-sized score that perhaps should be larger than life. But Boulez finds a depth few other conductors explore. By emphasizing the modern objectivity of Stravinsky's most romantic score, The Firebird becomes as logical and even melodic as anything in Mozart or Beethoven. 

One must work with the composer instead of against him. In Mahler, such deliberate order in the face of Mahler's visceral chaos is thoroughly inappropriate, in Stravinsky it's almost demanded. Stravinsky's own recording of the ballet is not too distant in spirit from Boulez; the unbendable logic of Stravinsky's mind makes this supposedly exotic score into something utterly apiece with everything else he wrote. 

In Ernest Ansermet we not only had a conductor who knew Stravinsky intimately well (until their falling out), but also directed an orchestra for fifty years with a make of instruments that the the young Stravinsky would have recognized. By the technical standards of today, the Suisse Romande Orchestra sounds like a not particularly elite conservatory orchestra, and they can barely handle the 'Infernal Dance' when they play it at 80 % normal speed; but the textures of their old-style French instruments attain a new and natural clarity with French instruments that obdurately refuse to blend with each other - give us this sloppiness a thousand times over the antisepsis of contemporary ensembles. Ansermet, longtime conductor of the Ballet Russes, seems to conjure the spirit of the Ballet Russes. The music becomes gestural, almost cinematic in how it paints moods. You can almost hear Folkine and Diaghilev saying "We need sixteen bars of fear here, then about two minutes of flight music, then give us some ominous rumbles over here, maybe you could use a bass drum?..." Other conductors give you Stravinsky's music, but Ansermet gives you what Stravinsky's music is for. 

The lightening quick rise of Francois-Xavier Roth is matched by a performance that takes flight. His quasi-period band, Les Siecles, does not sound particularly different from other orchestras, certainly not in comparison to Ansermet's Geneva orchestra of old, just a bit mellower and blended than a traditional symphony orchestra - and aren't French instruments supposed to not blend? But the mellowness of their timbres allows for a kind of lightness of virtuosity that is positively astounding. 

The twenty-something Esa-Pekka Salonen (who looked exactly like the fifty-something Esa-Pekka) gives a reading that is very much a Boulez-in-training. There's the same inexorable logic and mastery of pacing. In a manner perhaps no other reading does, it 'feels' exactly right. But unfortunately, Salonen clearly aims for a virtuosity beyond what Boulez demands, and the young Salonen is not quite up to obtaining it. Salonen represents the first generation of musicians for whom Stravinsky's idiom holds no challenges. As he matured, he's become perhaps the greatest of all Stravinsky conductors - greater even than Gergiev and Rattle in his generation, perhaps even greater than Ansermet and Bernstein and Craft and Ancerl. When the mature Salonen re-records The Firebird, it's hard to believe he won't unleash a Firebird of a depth beyond even Boulez's. 

On the other hand, in the meantime there's a youtube live relay of The Firebird by Salonen in Los Angeles that thoroughly lives up to Salonen's potential and the greatness of his achievement in LA. The middle-aged Salonen still hasn't 'solved' the second half of The Firebird, and in both cases, the performance loses a bit of steam a few minutes before the Danse Infernal. Even so, the performance is utterly different than either Boulez or the young Salonen - much closer in many ways to the more passionate performances listed below. When Salonen finally nails it, it'll be greater than Boulez. If Boulez is great in three dimensions, then Salonen is great in four. His Stravinsky effortlessly marries logic and precision to passion. Salonen is the best evidence we have that the world finally 'gets' Stravinsky.

We still don't have a great complete Firebird that's truly 'Russian', Gergiev's performance with the Mariinsky has the rawness of Russian instruments and extremes of tempo and dynamics, but they take half the work's length to truly heat things up. In Andris Nelsons's recent Birmingham recording, The Firebird is its traditionally shimmering, languid self. Modernism is utterly banished from its vocabulary, and it's much closer to the world of Stravinsky's mentor Rimsky-Korsakov than later Stravinsky. It's not wrongheaded, it's just not the whole story. Dmitri Kitaenko, a much older Soviet conductor, creates languor with a relaxed poetry that never pushes the music - like a Russian Debussy or Delius. Rattle's recording (with the same orchestra as Nelsons twenty years earlier) is shimmering in a much more theatrical, ecstatic, way. Similar to Kitaenko, it looks neither forward nor backward but sideways, in Rattle's case to more elephantine and Teutonic contemporaries of early Stravinsky like Mahler and Richard Strauss. Rattle captures the zeitgeist of the era that created Stravinsky, and which Stravinsky would soon rebel against. If Rattle captures a zeitgeist, then Valery Gergiev captures an ortgeist, or a traumgeist. His archetypally 'Russian' Firebird, ironically best captured in a video with the Vienna Philharmonic, arrives from a dark well of spirit, where dream-like images arrive to our minds unbidden - perhaps Scriabin's stepchild. 

But there is very little shimmer in Stenz's Stravinsky. The closest recordings in spirit to it are Christoph von Dohnanyi's and Antal Dorati's - electric Firebirds with the strangeness of every sound maximized. Continuous visceral thrills in which the excitement of listening can be felt in your body. In Dohnanyi's case, the interpretation unmistakably feels a bit like shallow virtuosity (Bernard Haitink's is the opposite - rigorous and deep at the expense of virtuosity and excitement). However brilliant the playing, the lyricism of the score is nowhere to be found. But not even Dorati could compare to Stenz's theatricality. Over and over again, I was put in mind of Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, not just for the enormity of the dynamics, but the pointilistic way Stenz illuminated the orchestral colors which registered like dots on a canvas, or like Schoenberg's endlessly discussed way of altering colors, the 'Klangfarbenmelodien.' 

(Ranking of Best Recorded Firebirds
Honorable Mention to the Salonen aircheck in Los Angeles
1. Boulez/Chicago (Depth)
2. Gergiev/Vienna (Dynamism)
3. Dorati/London (Fire)
4. Rattle/Birmingham (Romanticism)
5. Stravinsky/Columbia (Authenticity) 
6. Salonen/Philharmonia (Rightness)
7. Ansermet/Suisse Romande ('Frenchness') 
8. Kitaenko/Danish Radio (Poetry and Ease)
9. Nelsons/Birmingham (Languor) 
10. Roth/Les Siecles (Propulsion)  
11. Dohnanyi/Vienna (Virtuosity)
12. Haitink/London (Rigor)

This was an 'expressionist' Firebird, akin to how Mitropoulos or Scherchen might have interpreted it. I've been fortunate enough to hear at least four live Firebirds, Jansons, Noseda, Nezet-Seguin, and Stenz. All good, and fully three of them - Jansons, Nezet-Seguin, and Stenz, were no less than great. But only Stenz had extra insight and nuance that gave the more substance than merely superlative playing and excitement give. I recall vividly the enormous range of dynamics Jansons presented, with colors as vivid as those you see. In the finale, he went from the faintest whisper to a glorious firing of all torpedoes in the Pittsburgh Symphony. And yet when Stenz did the same passage, it was a continual crescendo, every bass drum hit louder than the previous one, the brass slightly louder than a moment previously, the orchestra accumulating intensity from one beat to the next, until he emphasized that glorious D-Flat Major brass chord with its hidden tritone against the the orchestra's pedalpoint B at full fortississimo. It was a master class in how to build harmonic tension. 

Even had he not played so much in Baltimore, I'd call Markus Stenz easily one of the greatest conductors in the world - or at least he would be if he occasionally took things ten metronome points slower. He's one of a very few who can measure up to my favorite modern conductor, Simon Rattle, and be unashamed. Like Rattle, he's a conductor who plays literally everything, and all of it with incredible musicality, insight, and uniqueness. There is no mistaking his performances for anyone else's. Except for Baltimore, every major orchestra on the East Coast suddenly has a conductor who is, at least, unquestionably very good. I'll go to bat for Marin Alsop as exactly the kind of music director every orchestra in America needs, but I can't pretend I find her musicmaking particularly compelling much of the time. With the arrival on the East Coast of Zweden and Noseda, she is now the weakest conductor at the head of a major orchestra in the Northeast US - Noseda (generic but incredibly viscerally exciting and plays lots of unfamiliar repertoire), Honeck (along with Ivan Fischer probably the greatest contemporary interpreter of standard rep in the whole world - HM's to old-timers like Blomstedt & Haitink & Dohnanyi), Nezet-Seguin (shallow but almost always exciting), Zweden (too disciplined and rigid but always dependable, usually exciting, and with a huge repertoir. He also can surprise you occasionally with his warmth), Nelsons (if he doesn't burn himself out he could be another Furtwangler...). Unless Nelsons's stature grows very quickly or Honeck starts playing a wider variety of music, Stenz is clearly better than them all. If Alsop leaves, Baltimore has an obligation to snap Stenz up, and if we do, the BSO will be the best orchestra in driving distance, and music lovers from all around the East Coast (and surely there have to be a couple dozen...) will drive down to Baltimore and marvel.

Pittsburgh Symphony/Manfred Honeck - Bruckner 8 A half-century ago, it was a truth universally acknowledged that the greatest orchestras were in America. They were not the most sincere of expression, but in the era of recording, they never seemed to make mistakes, and their sound had the same glamor as American automobiles, power tools. Whether it was the silken sheen of Boston, the x-ray clarity of Cleveland, the velvet bath of Philadelphia, or the raucous virtuosity of Chicago and New York, the American orchestras were miracles of engineering. They rarely exhibited the kind of musical sincerity that inspires great composers, but they were glorious gadgets - exhibited for display like the latest models from General Electric or Boeing.

What American orchestras once were, the orchestras of Northern Europe are today. But if the American orchestras of yesteryear seemed to never make mistakes, the Germanic orchestras of today literally never do. Germans were always known for their engineering, and these orchestras are so perfect as to be eugenic. Supertechnicians like Herbert von Karajan, Bernard Haitink, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Lorin Maazel, Claudio Abbado, Mariss Jansons, Riccardo Chailly, (and no doubt a new generation soon including Vladimir Jurowski, Daniel Harding, the Petrenkos) have assembled orchestras of such inhuman perfection that even the driven tension which the old American orchestras generated - the tightly-coiled sound it took to produce that made you wonder if it could come undone, is gone from them, and once unique orchestras like the Concertgebouw, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony, can produce an all-purpose sonic velvet in any passage, regardless of difficulty. Is it musical greatness? Well... certainly of a type, and like those old American orchestras, they can surprise you - with the right conductor, on the right night, with the right repertoire, they can be humanly moving and much more than just an Orchestra with a Capital O. Any knowledgeable music lover can name great performances by any of the aforementioned recent maestri or orchestras, but at the same time, merely everything in its right place is not great musicmaking. True mastery grows out of imperfection, through which the greatest artists of any genre develop qualities which are absolutely unique to them.

But while German-ish orchestras grow more generic, German-ish conductors grow more interesting. Ten years ago, a knowledgeble music lover could be forgiven for thinking that the great line of German Kapellmeister was gone. But the Kapellmeister didn't die, even if there are fewer, it just evolved. Many of the best qualities of the German School are adapted by non-Germans like Barenboim, or Runnicles, or Nelsons and Dudamel, who have the warm sounds and flexible tempi of another generation. The conductors who are actually from German-speaking lands, are branching out in ways that would have mystified Walter and Furtwangler (maybe not Klemperer...).

Imagine Furtwangler doing Shostakovich 8, let alone well...

The two biggest stars among them are in some ways, the most old-fashioned and least interesting. Franz Welser-Most is better than he's generally given credit for being, but that hardly makes him great. In the music of his native Austria - Mozart, Schubert, Bruckner, Schoenberg and Berg, he can be truly inspired. Otherwise, he's always prepared, competent, self-effacing, responsible, able and willing to direct any repertoire with authority. In other words an ideal modern incarnation the old-fashioned Kapellmeister. Christian Thielemann is an inspirational director of the German classics - Beethoven, Schumann (though strangely he doesn't seem to perform Mendelssohn as often...), Brahms, Strauss. He goes through the motions of other standard rep, and seems to perform no music post-1945. He's not a relic, he's a brilliant reactionary, determined to turn the clock back to Furtwangler, and gifted enough that it's astonishing how close he comes.

Thielemann pressing the reset button and making Vienna sound like the Vienna of old

But the 'next rank' down, matters get more interesting. We can leave aside a few who deserve more recognition than I'll give them here - Ulf Schirmer, Ingo Metzmacher, Marc Albrecht, Claus Peter Flor, the Sanderlings, Sebastian Weigle, and we won't even get started on the extraordinary list of Scandinavians dominating every concert hall. Let's just focus on three...

Let's start with Thomas Hengelbrock, who first came to eminence as an early music conductor, and who directs early music and the thorniest avant garde as brilliantly as he does standard repertoire. Of the 'superorchestras' of Northern Europe, the only one who strikes me as getting to a consistent level of human expression is Hengelbrock's NDR Elbphilharmonie. More astonishing than the universality of Hengelbrock's repertoire is his seeming mastery of it all. Fundamental musical virtues like rhythmic vitality, vocal line, extremity of dynamics, variety of colors, stand next to extraordinarily fresh interpretive ideas (listen to the beginning of either his Beethoven 5 or Brahms 4 on youtube to get a kick in the ass...).

Hengelbrock doing Mahler 1 in its original version, shock inducing yet totally Mahlerian

Then there's Markus Stenz, our local principal guest, and a virtuoso in the very best sense. No matter how good he is, I often wish Stenz would slow the tempos down a bit. Like Hengelbrock, he seems to perform everything and perform it superbly. But unlike other 'tutti-Allegro' conductors, he gets nuance after nuance. Every single moment is a continuous interpretation in which one detail adds to the one before.

Mahler 1 done by Stenz as both novel and ballet...

With Hengelbrock, with his musical sense that's utterly individual yet finds its way into every corner of the repertoire, I'm often put in mind of Rafael Kubelik (my ultimate compliment). With Stenz and his super-technique which he seems to use to tell a novel in pantomime, I'm often put in mind of Carlos Kleiber. Kleiber is the perhaps the great 'what if' of orchestral rep, 'what would he have made of this', 'this' meaning a thousand different pieces of music. Some predecessors clearly influenced him: his father Erich most obviously, but also Bruno Walter and Herbert von Karajan, perhaps even some America-based virtuosi like Fritz Reiner or George Szell. Some of his contemporaries put me in mind of him - German-speakers like Gielen and Dohnanyi who came as refugees to the 'New World' as children like Kleiber, certainly Abbado and Blomstedt and Jansons could channel that superhuman head, heart and hands; most surprisingly, perhaps the best missing link seemed to be the Australian, Sir Charles Mackerras.

How Kleiber might have done Don Giovanni (if he got worse singers, orchestras, and productions)

But still more Kleiber-like than Mackerras, and of all Kleiber's dozens of children who dance ballet on the podium, none seem so to channel the performances we never got better than Manfred Honeck, the former violist of the Vienna Philharmonic who played for Kleiber and dozens of others. Honeck seems to be an extremely religious Catholic, but he's no reactionary like Thielemann. He plays new music, if not quite in enormous quantity, and plenty of music outside a narrow Austro-German specialty. He is, perhaps rather, a conservative in the very best sense, soaked in our glorious history, who incarnates the long, wise tradition of music. No conductor can be the greatest in the world who doesn't put contemporary music at the center of his achievement, but there is not a single conductor in the world who performs standard repertoire at a higher, more human and humane, more expressive, more moving level. Perhaps because of this, he channels not so much Kleiber but to put him at a still more exalted level, the middle-aged Bruno Walter.

Before Honeck, the PSO had Lorin Maazel and Mariss Jansons, two supertechnicians if ever there were. Maazel, a native Yinzer, achieved some of his best work in his hometown, but until the Celibidache-like zen of his final few years, there was nothing warm and fuzzy about this ice cold virtuoso who was never happier than when he made enormous, gleaming, refined yet brutal sounds, seemingly etched at the same worktable as musical drill sergeants like Fritz Reiner and Erich Leinsdorf. And twenty years ago, Mariss Jansons was a different conductor. As technically adept as he is now, but the fact that he made less than brilliant orchestras sound like brilliant ones was what made him so special. Everything that now sounds bombastic in Munich and antiseptic in Amsterdam was luminous in Pittsburgh and Oslo. He had a Klemperer like magnetism that made every detail, however predictable, register perfectly into a whole. Everybody agreed that Jansons's premature departure from Pittsburgh was a tragedy, but what no one foresaw was that the tragedy would be for Jansons.

From when Jansons was the underdog...

But after nine years of Manfred Honeck, the technical perfection is nowhere to be found except on Honeck's baton. The Pittsburgh Symphony is both shockingly responsive and shockingly unresponsive. There are ensemble and intonation problems every thirty seconds, and yet these are clearly the mistakes of over-concentration, not under-concentration. There's no mistaking the clarity of Honeck's beat, but there's also no mistaking the extremity of his musical demands. Every phrase seems to require nuance atop nuance - tiny rubatos and dynamic swells everywhere, loud passages to wake the dead and soft passages in which you hear the silence surrounding the sound. Aside from Michael Tilson Thomas, the great current batons who make the bulk of their careers in America seem to be Honeck, Osmo Vanska, and Jaap van Zweden (let us pray, soon Gianandrea Noseda too). But both Vanska and Zweden, formidable as they both are, are bitten by the perfection/precision bug. If you box music-making into something that has to be a certain way, it cannot express anything ambiguous. Music under them is only the thing in itself, but under Honeck, it suggests infinities. Perfection, the disease that hounded Kleiber and a hundred years of classical musicians, is nowhere to be found with him, and in its place precisely what should be there, pure expression. For all their imperfections, and perhaps because of them, I would rather hear the Pittsburgh Symphony in standard repertoire than nearly any orchestra in Europe.

Gunter Herbig does a Bruckner 8 for the ages

Honeck seems to have recorded much more Mahler and Strauss than Bruckner, and I've often wondered what the Bruckner of this Austrian Catholic sounded like. The answer is both more and less extraordinary than I hoped for. In the last few years I've heard the work live form Bychkov and Chicago, Barenbom and Berlin, and Herbig and Baltimore. The best live of this three was, without a doubt, Gunter Herbig's in Baltimore. Herbig is an 85 year old East German who no doubt has been contemplating the work in his head for seventy years. By comparison, Honeck's conception was a little airless - perhaps a little too ponderous for my tastes (top 5 recordings: Tennstedt, Herbig, Kubelik, Bohm, Walter. HM to Tintner and Gielen for doing the original version. Further HM's to Furtwangler, Barbirolli, Jochum, Harnoncourt, Eichhorn, Venzago, Andreae, Celibidache in Munich, Thielemann for doing something other than business as usual... I can't take the usual Karajan/Giulini recs in this piece, Wand is a little better but still not great IMHO) I expected this maestro who shakes the heavens in Beethoven and Mahler and Tchaikovsky and Strauss to give no quarter in this composer whose music has been synonymous with monoliths for far too long.

No, this was clearly devotional Bruckner - I don't know why I was surprised that an Austrian Catholic would conduct Bruckner like an Austrian Catholic. And yet, I wonder if I've ever found devotional Bruckner as absorbing as yesterday. Even if the speeds were Karajan or (even) Giulini-level slow, there was nothing of their imperious distance from the music. I suppose the closer analogy would be Gunter Wand or Karl Bohm, but there was nothing of Wand's (misguided to my mind) attempts to blend every sound or Bohm's insistence on staying in tempo. Those awesome and abundant brassy climaxes felt like religious ecstasy - I was put in mind of any number of awesome religious paintings; Michelangelo, Bosch, El Greco, Titian, Caravaggio...

The fact that such loud sounds feel earned is a miracle in of itself. The orchestra is so unbelievably bass heavy, warm, overtone-rich, that decibel levels which should sound as though they come from nowhere sound completely natural. This is perfect for Bruckner, and the ability to obtain it is of a musical knowledge far beyond my paygrade. Like a great organist with registers for every shade of color and dynamics, the big pipes seem brought out at precisely the right moments. In between, there were so many moments that bent time with the individuality of their musical ideas. In the Adagio particularly, I can't put into words the fragility of the music we heard. Bruckner 8 in Pittsburgh was not my Bruckner 8, but I had the honest and perhaps too rare sense that the fault was mine. This was a better than any Bruckner 8 of which my mind can conceive.

How to do Tchaikovsky 6

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