Auf Wiederhören

Thirty-odd concerts since September between Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Missed a handful of the best offerings: Thomas Adès’s brilliantly programmed Carnegie recital, Muti’s Met conducting debut with Attila (how I heart Ildar Abdrazakov—ever since seeing his 2004 Met debut as Masetto), Lulu at the Met with Marlies Peterson who rules that role. And no time through the wintry blur to justly register some of the best I did see: both nights of Jansons / Royal Concertgebouw, both nights of Chailly / Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Ravel magic of Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

My three penultimate concerts before ending the season with Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre:

May 14, Avery Fisher Hall
Kurt Masur / New York Philharmonic
Beethoven Symphony No. 1, Bruckner Symphony No. 7

It is actually not enough to say that this was the best Bruckner one might ever hear from the NY Philharmonic. This was the NY Phil setting a new personal best, period—exercising more power and precision than have recently seemed within its (Maazel’s, Gilbert’s) grasp. Though Masur’s Seventh couldn’t compete with benchmark renditions like Böhm’s or von Karajan’s—and wouldn’t suffice to restore this orchestra to a place among the true Big Five—it was without a doubt the most satisfying Bruckner New York has gotten all year. (Earlier disappointments here.) Incredibly radiant from the outset, this performance proceeded with care and utter concentration. The strings intently bore the considerable pressure put on them (slight fuzziness in the Finale apart); the brass consistently rose to the occasion with strong sonorities. So much of Bruckner is just about waiting, heart full yet without eagerness. Here, in the brooding, majestic Adagio especially, one did not ever wait for the wait to end.

May 20, Carnegie Hall
Yundi Li, all-Chopin program

The Chopin bicentennial at Carnegie Hall has brought inspired playing from Murray Perahla and Emanuel Ax and less inspired playing by Maurizio Pollini, already half a dozen Chopin-dominated concerts in all. But Chopin played by Yundi Li (or Yundi, his new mono-moniker) still sounded different. There was an inner muscularity here subtending even the most yielding of phrases. It was not just a matter of agilest fingerwork but of having swum deep and feelingly through the material until he flowed into it and it through him.

The crescendo in the Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 came as rich, weighted surge—almost imperceptible as actual volume adjustment. A controlled yet ferocious rendition of the Opus 22 Grand Polonaise lacked no grandeur, yet also took space to experiment with abstraction at the edges. The Second Sonata began with micro-ripples in a stormy sea; its Marche funèbre tolled as slow volley; and its final movement—all wing-craft. As the elegant execution of the “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53 evinced, Li is no triumphalist even at his most energetic.

So much Chopin gets played in nearly isolated huddles of reverie or bursts of virtuosity, between stretches of vague etude or quietude. Li delivered these pieces gathering through time—long, lyrical lines sinuously weaving through, weaving together, each whole.

Sending an appreciative murmur of recognition through the Chinese audience, the first encore, The Moon Chased by Colorful Clouds, could not have been suppler and more shimmering. (Although critics’ ubiquitous comparisons between the two young Chinese pianists have absurdly little to do with music: this piece made Lang Lang’s version last fall during Carnegie’s Ancient Voices, Modern Paths festival seem mere pretty crispness).

Who in their right mind for a second encore—after hours of pianistic exertion—would fling themselves into the Revolutionary Etude? Who’d have strength left to pull it off with such tempestuous yet decisive passion? Yet for Li this didn’t even seem daring. It felt inevitable.

May 21, Carnegie Hall
Franz Welser-Möst / Cleveland Orchestra
Beethoven Coriolan Overture & Eroica Symphony; Berg Lulu Suite

Lulu was played beautifully and with admirable commitment, yet its gauzy protractedness begged an uncomfortable question: should a piece like this retain a place in the concert-hall repertoire? Certain operatic and dance scores do not need to be staged to command attention: e.g., Stravinsky’s ballets, Wagner’s overtures, one-act tours de force like Erwartung and Bluebeard’s Castle. But Lulu even in its suite abbreviation suffers from unstaged presentation—can start sounding like atmospheric film music. About halfway through, this Friday night Carnegie crowd began trading sighing looks and thumbing smartphones. The final work on the program, Eroica, was taken at a clipped pace and refreshed after intermission. But one doubts the audience would have erupted in such eager ovation without a soupçon of self-congratulation for its stamina through the Berg. For all its channeling of warmth and adrenaline, the Cleveland Orchestra had something soft-focus at its sonic edges that gave it a classic, gramophone patina—compared to the almost piercing brightness of Philadelphia Orchestra, for instance, during its Le sacre at Carnegie last month. As ever, one is reminded of that obscure alchemy to which an orchestra owes its “sound.”

All Ages

The BUZZCOCKS, May 8, 2010, Fillmore Irving Plaza

Dense, spirited crowding of bodies—just enough to make one heartsick for bygone days of all-ages shows in smoky clubs, of foolish jubilant jumping, of secretly being in awe of while gingerly dodging the scariest slam-dancers’ windmilling arms. Nostalgia simply to stand at the frontmost pit’s innermost edge, a few yards from the stage, elbow or palm at the ready to gently bounce any body crashing in one’s direction back into the frenzied middle. To witness again the mutually protective ethic, the essential professionalism—most knowing how to handle themselves, briskly helping up the fallen, not spilling beer.

Crowd-surfing slightly sad: over the course of the show only half a dozen bodies made it aloft, and even then buoyancy was brief and the return to ground precarious, upper body often dropping first. But this isn’t exactly mosh music, and the floor nonetheless throbbed with jumpers. One guy grabbed strangers’ shoulders left and right, sometimes as impromptu half-hug, sometimes to get more height when it came time to jump. Sweetly, none of his conscripted supports seemed to object. The mightiest jumper was practically gymnastic, if weirdly arrhythmic, buff in a teddy-bear way, who knew all the lyrics despite his (apparent) relative youth. The most memorable figure in the pit, however, was a tall, silver-maned, silver-bearded magus-like elder jacketed in black leather who swayed and tossed himself about heftily, as if with both abandon and gravitas, like some venerable punk immortal.

The Buzzcocks were their adorable selves: Steve Diggle all impish mischief and delight, Pete Shelley stout, ruddy, hearty, ironic—a pair of characters one could imagine as sagely buzzards in some animated series.

Sole pity was the opening band, the Dollyrots—dull bubblegummy girl band from LA Audrina Patridge would probably nod along with, glassy-eyed.

Bomb scare outside venue.

Dholdrums

Basement Bhangra 13th anniversary Friday at the Fillmore Irving Plaza: a re-inspection after many years away. The combination of busy yet puzzling performer line-up with low bhangra-to-hip-hop ratio, and probably roomier venue, and probably too-predictable playlists, resulted in a night of fits and starts and mostly waiting. Nina Sky: cute; random. Raghav (who he?): low-blow attempts at crowd-arousal, launching each song with the hook of some trusty evergreen (“Choli ke peeche,” “Ek ladki ko dekha”) before plummeting treacherously into his own bland work (one song built on a trope about “peanut-butter cups”). On the floor one saw moves tested out, practiced, repeated, repeated—the peril of the dance lessons? Missing were the large dance circles, except one that lasted all of six minutes. Energy fields generally curdled into clusters of those who’d come clustered to begin with. People were friendly, people were ready; there was just too little impetus supplied for collective enthusiasm. An imperfect night to re-rapprocher with this scene.

Ice, Oceans, Earth, Mahler

Belatedly catching up on the Winter Olympics, especially the figure-skating pair upon which China has been pinning its dreams. After near-misses at three prior Olympics, Shen Xue (31) and Zhao Hongbo (36) finally took the gold Monday—with a new world record. In the flawless clinching of each most critical moment one sensed the poignant history of their determination.

Is there anything in the world more beautifying of the dyad than pairs figure-skating? Dance can express a greater range of truths, but skating dreams all the friction out of dance, out of relation, even as it exquisitely refines a sense of danger and vulnerability. There’s no scampering, no chase; one merely glides, until one crashes, either for having attempted something more or for having been unable to stop. For the dyad on ice dramas of apartness remain but never inevitably: even when the very rhyme of their routines keeps them separate, the two figures stay always linked—the diagonal corners of a flexile, collapsible parallelogram. “Earth’s the right place for love”—yes—because it’s a place of frictive pleasures, because there’s something honest and effortful in the discrete biped tread. But one could imagine others who find the peculiar beauty and brinksmanship of love on ice more irresistible.

The Royal Concertgebouw’s Mahler Third tonight at Carnegie Hall: this was oceanic feeling. This was earth as drummed immensity, whose concussions only this music, and in our time maybe only this orchestra—its sound both muscular and of measureless depth—could fully body forth. In the opening movement one could feel the very tendrils of summer shivering into life, the season’s sunny resplendence still tenuous at the edges, before full fulmination. The second-movement minuet had a gorgeous, lilting airiness, and the third movement was all expansive breath. Mezzo Jill Grove’s voice melted gracefully into the orchestral scoring during the O Mensch! and Es sungen drei Engel songs. Infinite steadfast patience: what the final movement instilled and sublimely rewarded.

CARNEGIE HALL | Pittsburgh Teleports Vienna

Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 8 PM

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, cond. Manfred Honeck
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

BRAHMS | Violin Concerto (Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin)
MAHLER | Symphony No. 1
Encore: JOSEF STRAUSS | “Die Libelle”: Polka Mazur, Op. 204

Last night’s Mahler First with Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony was the most seizing account of this work I have ever heard live. One who feels in Mahler a kindred spirit will have felt in Honeck a true compatriot.

A lustrous, concussive force—Pittsburgh is now an orchestra to be reckoned with. The first movement began less than pristinely but the players soon warmed up, cellos pulling with earthy traction—the traction of my dreams!—and the rest of the symphony soon erupting. Amid the sunlit daydreams and acrid ironies there were eddies of utterly Viennese creaminess, straight outta Steel City. (Honeck’s early apprenticeship to Abbado and his history with the Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera would explain this in part but does little to soften the surprise of his impact after just two years at Pittsburgh.) The Frère Jacques theme was more flat than sad, more deflated than mournful—rightly so. The way those lyrical, romantic melodies later wove into the third movement, and barely managed to in the final movement, was always exquisitely perfect. The strings were amazing, the brass were amazing; only the winds needed more nuance and precision. Anne Midgette observed of Honeck’s performance with Pittsburgh last May in DC that this is a conductor who knows what he wants. This was absolutely clear last night. He has a physically involved conducting style that actively molds the orchestra’s sound and shakes it forth. I cannot wait to hear the recent recording they made of this work.

Like voters, music critics can gravitate fatally toward center. Surely only this impulse could explain Anthony Tommasini’s miserly NYT review. [Postscript: For his part, in a rundown of Carnegie Hall’s orchestral showdown this season, Alex Ross admits to having missed the Pittsburgh Symphony entirely. A sad exclusion, as he might otherwise have seen the Pittsburghers make as startling an impact as the Minnesotans he justly lauds—and bristling with precisely the kind of “collective risk-taking” he attests to having sought and too rarely found.]

Anne-Sophie Mutter’s Brahms concerto, opening the concert, achieved an astonishingly beautiful tone, hard-earned through artistic maturity and abiding intimacy with her instrument. No longer the merely fiery, merely flawless virtuoso, von Karajan’s irreproachable protégée. How did she manage to bow forth those finest rivulets of flowing mercury?—so pristine and so scorching at the same time? There is some secret in her bowing….

CARNEGIE HALL | Of Firebirds and Nests

Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 8 PM

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, cond. Pierre Boulez
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

BOULEZ | Livre pour cordes
BARTÓK | Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra (Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tamara Stefanovich, pianos)
STRAVINSKY | The Firebird (complete)

A privilege to hear Boulez conduct, last night for the third time in just two weeks. His friend and protégé Pierre-Laurent Aimard was present, too—my first time seeing him after years of being transfixed by his Ligeti recordings. What a stunning showcasing of the Chicago Symphony’s stunning abilities these concerts have been.

The concluding work left the deepest impression. Firebird: from supple translucence to explosive expanse. By the end the whole hall felt bursting and ablaze. On the way out afterward I ran into a lady so dazed she seemed ready to stumble. “Was that not wonderful!” she breathed. “Yes, it was amazing.” “I was crying all the way through.” “Oh! I wasn’t crying but I was sweating,” I confessed, verbs barbaric, “It knocked me out.” “Yes,” she nodded, as glad as I to blurt it out, “it completely knocked me out!” After exchanging more marvel over ageless Boulez we parted with good-night wishes and a shared thrownness.

Boulez’s own Livre pour cordes (1948-88) began with sparse stirrings that delicately explored without out-stretching astray. Bobbins of exceptionally fine, distinct threads of sound patiently spun out into fuzzy, woolen, cloud-like forms—something cotton-candy-like. Out of pleasant arrhythmias emerged sudden, decisive clusters of energy, as directional gesture or frenzy of pizzicato—utterly convincing yet somehow untraceable. Particular beauty took the form of slippery efflorescences, blooming between exacter events. The CSO strings were superbly suited to the intricate textures of this music.

Full of creative vigor, Bartók’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra (1940) is less concerto than a showcase for percussion and the piano’s own percussive machinations. (That the pianists were therefore less soloists than features of the orchestra meant one couldn’t quite hear Aimard in a starring role—but let there be other opportunities.) Like so much of ceaselessly surprising Bartók, its sound-world remains to this day strange and marvelous to behold. Beginning with tight, rumbling note-clusters in the pianos that gradually expand in amplitude, the lengthy first movement shifts almost imperceptibly (because through many captivating events) from the chthonic to the celestial. The second movement opens with a simple, expectant, almost Baroque dance rhythm, then quietens into an elemental space of stippling keys, breeze-like airs sweeping through, things turning in the light. In the third movement we sense a return to the spaces of human activity—rhythms of work, of dance, of pageantry—and concludes with those sounds passing into the distance, but to keep on as they are, not to die away. The two percussionists here—Cynthia Yeh and Vadim Karpinos–were the real stars.

In the row behind me a young couple cuddled in a nest they’d made with their coats and woolens and flowing hair and sat whispering in French for much of the concert, seemingly oblivious to the extraordinary proceedings on stage, save perhaps as dramatic scenery for their ardor. One smiles upon them and vaguely worries about them—these young pairs for whom little is more interesting out there in the world than the burning circuit of their own vitality.

CARNEGIE HALL | Boulez Bluebeard

Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 8 PM

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, cond. Pierre Boulez
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

RAVEL | Le Tombeau de Couperin
DALBAVIE | Flute Concerto (Mathieu Dufour, flute)
BARTÓK | Bluebeard’s Castle (Michelle DeYoung, mezzo; Falk Struckmann, bass-baritone)

To carry Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle to its bloodcurdling pitch without recourse to hysterics is to understand the work as tragedy rather than horror. Or to understand that its horror is the bare tragic truth of human needfulness. At its most quotidian, the Bartók-Balázs take on Perrault’s tale flings into a void two souls in a state of needful unknowing. A man craves unconditional love—“Kiss me, kiss me, ask me nothing”—yet mistrusts every expression of such love and so remains murderously unslaked. A woman loves, but her love is fraught by curiosity—jealousy’s arsenal—and so she self-annihilates precisely by asking and asking.

Why she has agreed to join him is his keynote question—a question that shifts in tone from tremulous insecurity to protective fear for her to blame of her for triggering the inevitable. That she loves him is her uniform justification. Her “I love you”s beam out like a weapon—the way too overt selflessness does—shielding herself by clutching him to her: give me the keys because I love you, she sings, let me into every door because I love you. But it’s folly, for so many reasons, to seek such a trade. When the six doors have been opened onto their bloodstained vistas and Door Seven reveals Bluebeard’s former loves, Judith is dazzled into an utterly paltry state of feeling: her antecedents, she sings, have all been fairer than she. Yet it is just as he finally utters the words she’d been aching to hear—“You are queen of all my women, / My best and fairest!”—that she quiescently enters the Seventh Door, finally knowing and accepting her fate to be the same as everyone else’s.

Bartók’s score for the emotionally stark, seething, precipitous world that happens between these two lone voices completely chills and engrosses. Falk Struckmann’s Bluebeard was just right in its melancholy and solemnity, though occasionally more subdued in volume than so large a hall, so great an accompanying orchestra, could really accommodate. Michelle DeYoung, her mettle now proven through Mahler and Wagner, effectively conveyed Judith’s eager, ample-hearted innocence and gave it the slightest tinge of obsessiveness. But more expressive than either singer was the Chicago Symphony itself—whether in the high violin tremolos behind the First Door and evocation of shivering rivulets of blood, the unrelenting trumpet behind the Second Door escalating to a clang of violence, the hypnotic shimmer and deceptive reverie behind the Third Door, or, at the Sixth, the thunderous drumming of tears.

[Postscript: Couldn’t make it to this series, unfortunately, for further Bluebeard meditations.]

METROPOLITAN OPERA | Rush-Tix Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier
Wednesday, January 6, 2010, 7:30 PM

Conductor: Edo de Waart
Production: Nathaniel Merrill
Stage Director: Robin Guarino
Main Cast: Renée Fleming (Marschallin), Susan Graham (Octavian), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Baron Ochs), Christine Schäfer (Sophie), Eric Cutler (Italian tenor).

The first twenty people or so who make it into line for the Met’s $20 Varis Rush Tickets—a precious pool of 150 $100-value orchestra seats offered the day of most weeknight performances—begin waiting beneath the opera house, against a wall, in a dim pocket of the elegantly named “concourse level.” (After that the line starts snaking past doors and into back lobbies. The tickets start selling two hours before curtain, but those lining up less than three hours before that are often already too late.) For last night’s Der Rosenkavalier I made it to the front-most ten. In this space for the earliest, steeliest of arrivals—a sort of mezzanine above the Lincoln Center subway—the air-flow in winter gets very, very cold, thanks to an open door to the garage that in turn leads to a pedestrian walkway to the outside. This drafty back-end to that most laboriously, opulently contained of Gesamtkunstwerk spaces becomes a small site where opera unexpectedly becomes quite porous to the world, not only a simulation of or sanctuary from it.

The human flow here keeps things interesting: workers in hard-hats going on lunch break, security guards pausing for casual monitoring and friendly chat, dancers with duffels and alert faces rushing to their auditions, Met patrons who’ve just bought their (face-value) tickets from the box office and can already get on with their day, tour groups of adorable school-kids, a few of whom will generously guess at still grander rewards for this scarf-swaddled group hardily slumped along the wall. “No, they’re not here to audition,” the tour-guide brightly answers, summing up the rush-ticket system: “They’re going to be waiting for five hours. These are dedicated opera lovers.” (Quiet wows, curious stares, good-luck waves.)

In line there’s plenty of conversation to join in or eavesdrop on. These early pros bring not only snacks and reading—not one but two books—to pass the five, six hours, but fleece blankets and astonishingly compact folding chairs. (For these latter comforts I had no such foresight.) Before long one finds oneself negotiating coffee runs for place-holding, offering insider ticketing tales of triumph and dejection, policing would-be line-cheaters (this gets to be a real problem by mid-afternoon, when the 75th in line has a sure ticket while the 76th might already be out of luck), and of course trading invective, adulatory, or still receptively undecided thoughts on singers and stagings with the newbies, gossips, and walking Grove dictionaries that populate one’s line-neighborhood. It might be nice to generalize this crowd as composed of a special, honorable demographic—diehard opera fans whose passion exceed their means—but happily in this city it’s hard to tell. Some simply want a better seat than what’s left for sale at the box-office, or can’t pass up a good bargain, or don’t at all mind waiting when friends—or strangers for that matter—are there to keep them company and talk up a marathon storm about opera (such talk being a luxury in itself). A most illustrious-looking elderly lady in the most luxuriously fuchsia of wool coats was reading, of all things, a dog-eared paperback of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row—a curious image only if one forgets the Great Depression, or the elementary and persistent appeal of communal fortitude, or Doc’s love in that novel of Monteverdi.

marschallin-octavian
[Fleming’s Marschallin, Graham’s Octavian]

Der Rosenkavalier ends with a perfect dyad: Octavian and Sophie, young lovers of commensurate age, have eyes now only for each other and a self-fulfilling sense of their union as dreamiest gift, “through all time and forever.” The 17-year-old youth has been relinquished by his 32-year-old mistress the Marschallin; his 15-year-old bride has just wrested free of her arranged marriage to 35-year-old Baron Ochs. Strauss famously stated that the Marschallin, who has done the most giving up, is not a tragic figure, in part as we’re meant to know that Octavian is neither her first lover nor her last. (And during the night with Octavian she even dreamt of her husband, the much-absent Feldmarschall whom we, too, never get to meet.) Presumably we are merely seeing, then, one rich episode from her history of passions. All’s well, surely, that ends so well. Yet this opera is among the saddest I know. If the singing is at all better than competent, as it was last night, one’s bones can be left aching with misery.

I last saw Der Rosenkavalier at the Met in March 2005, starring Angela Denoke and Susan Graham, in this same Nathaniel Merrill production that’s been going for four decades. In a good way, last night’s felt sadder. There was a certain quietness to the Marschallin as played by Renée Fleming, who gave tender, supple voice to the role, her bearing all graceful restraining of self and enlightened relenting to others. Susan Graham as Octavian was a believable boy, chivalrously brash (ready to duel Sophie’s whole household) and domestically bumbling: once disguised as maid Mariandel he’s woefully incompetent at making up a simple bed—pitching pillows at the headboard like a game of ring toss. (Indeed, Octavian might be fit for little more than the socially respectable, servant-propped marriage he gets, with Sophie managing those servants.) Kristinn Sigmundsson played a Baron Ochs who, while looking rather older than the 35-year-old “rustic beau” Strauss imagined, was just obnoxious enough to dominate his scenes, jolly enough to be forgiven long before the end. The character of Sophie did not gain so much by Christine Schäfer’s clear yet slightly fragile voice, but as the Marschallin tells the character with proper condescension: “You don’t need to talk so much; you’re pretty enough.”

Octavian’s incessant, bored work at those pillows may not be without its point. It is precisely for the opening scene of the Marschallin and Octavian draped across and rolling around each other—amid that abundance of pillows in wonderful disarray—that we might soon grow nostalgic. Back then to the misery. No other lover of the Marschallin gets braided into this story, after all, for symmetry or fugal continuity. Having married the Feldmarschall at a tender age herself—presumably having missed out on consorting with her peers—she is quite justified in taking on tender Octavian, if justification is needed, but this cycle of inexorable asymmetry is just what she puts an end to when she delivers Octavian to Sophie. Here, as everywhere, (a kind of) death mars the picture: whatever Strauss’s lighter intent, there is the sense that her own life of desire has come to dusk, that her sacrifice is a too final one, and if what has dawned is a maturity able to offer to and demand from love more than possession: So what? So what if there is an art of losing and she has mastered it—losing farther, losing faster? So what if the role-shift from mistress to benefactress amounts to a moral self-surpassing? So what, even, if her sacrifice empowers her with agency, when such agency knows itself merely to be expediting the inevitable? Her renunciation is still a resignation that gains little comfort from its wisdom—the knowledge that this, too, shall pass; he will tire of her, she sings, “Today or tomorrow or the next day.” For all that wisdom avails of is a second-best way to live. The only way to rescue resignation from becoming passive and terminally inconsolable is by turning it into an act of generous, purposive orchestration—here, the timely chaperoning of Octavian to his age-appropriate fate. She cannot turn back time; this is how she refuses to be its casualty. Through the much-acknowledged tedium of the intervening comic scenes, the Marschallin as if by this sheer temporal protraction of the drama already attenuates, and in effect, true to her own fast-forwarded future-gazing, superannuates.

Given this subdued sacrifice, this adjustment of social cycles, which is also the Marschallin’s willful counteracting of her own earlier approach to time—the adjustment of the clocks in her house to standstill—Der Rosenkavalier feels like an aubade to an entire age. The Marschallin and Baron Ochs present, after all, two ways older, established powers can deploy their privileged role: ensuring the happiness of those with still the most to live, or, draining those young of their youth to maintain one’s own (admittedly undiminished) appetites. (It is fitting that everywhere he looks—Octavian, Mariandel—Ochs sees always the same face; what his all-you-can-score approach to love experiences is not addictive diversity but iterations of the same. But this precisely has kept him going as the perpetually turned-on and, when he, too, relents in Act III, the likably easy-going personality.) Indeed, when Sophie nearly loses heart in the final trio, seeing the final wistful gazes between her superior and her beloved, she wonders whether Octavian, too, had been a benefactor all along, extending nothing more than “friendship and assistance.”

The retro-Mozartian 18th-century setting offers not only a generic template, then, but also a historical alienation-effect that can more visibly recommend a stepping aside of orthodox authorities, or better yet a caring for posterity that becomes possible when those authorities accept their own imminent obsolescence. Had Adorno been more generous toward Strauss in general perhaps he could have entertained this possibility that Der Rosenkavalier, rather than an inflection point for the composer’s decline into bourgeois decadence, may also serve as a historical-generational parable. The 1911 opera was by no means prophetic, but would perhaps resonate nonetheless in a disturbing way, however inconclusively, with the old-feuds-driven, youth-scything war soon to come.

Yet one need not speculatively abstract the tale beyond its human characters to feel the vertigo of its depths. There are darker implications, too, that haunt the Marschallin’s designs. Every passionate love may carry within itself something that propels it toward thunderous and premature termination. That the culture’s most engaging dramas of such termination pose the problem in the form of other persons, be it Karenin or King Mark, and/or in the form of values, be it the sanctity of matrimony or the interdiction of incest, suggests a short-hand surrogation. The dyad in its airless mutuality would be hard-pressed, after all, to suffice as a sole sustaining life-world. And yet the faith in its self-sustenance, in its viable, even inevitable eternity, is also its lifeblood—and that lifeblood, too, must get its chance to pulse. (The Arthurian version might have clinched the problem best: what’s jeopardized is not marital fidelity but Round Table and Grail. On the other hand, of course, Guinevere has no place in that egalitarian economy potentially of holy war.) The Marschallin would rather have the killing awareness of finitude flung across the bright path before the path itself begins to fade. What Luhmann called double contingency produces for her, at her age and stage, less the stimulations of coding and gaming than a recognition of certain despair.

Darker still: rather than the gift of life to this pair, the Marschallin leaves Octavian and Sophie to a shared death. In the simplest biological terms, they will share a commensurate lifespan. Theirs is a young love so pure, so pristinely fused, that it may never be available for knowing other loves. Their very symmetry, then, may be a form of death. And that death may offer the Marschallin the only advantage she can claim. She may die alone, but she will not be bound to die with another. She is one step ahead of Adam Phillips’s ruthless musing: “At its best monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with. At its worst it is a cure for the terrors of aliveness. They are easily confused.” Clearing up the confusion may not, of course, enable or necessitate a different existence; the terrors of aliveness are real, as are the gratifications of company. For its part, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s extraordinary libretto intimates that this best and this worst are quite interchangeable (and maybe interchangeably bad). Sophie’s love for Octavian has something desperately agoraphobic about it: “I want to hide with you and to know nothing more of this world.” (Phillips again: “We have couples because it is impossible to hide alone.”) Later Octavian gravely intones, “For yourself and for me you must stay—…” “Stay?” asks Sophie. “Stay as you are.” How bitter a mandate this loving wish must strike anyone who’s been paying attention. The opera’s very first words had been Octavian’s exalting of the Marschallin in her past and her present: “Wie Du warst! Wie Du bist!” From this mandate to Sophie, and from his dumbed-down version of the Marschallin’s wisdom when singing in Act III as Mariandel, it is clear that he has yet to learn anything about time. Strauss was attuned to and would musically fine-tune Hoffmannsthal’s nuances. In the opera’s final lines, Octavian declares that “I feel only you, just you, and the fact that we’re together. Everything else flees from my senses like a dream,” while Sophie half-asks, half-insists innocuously whether/that the resolution is a “dream; it can’t be real, that we two are together, for all time and eternity.” But all this declarative security is trailed in the score by descending woodwinds that evoke at once indeed the slipping into a dream and something still more open-ended, hesitant, contingent. One almost feels that in these notes the Marschallin’s presence lingers, as she alone absorbs and alone will endure the consequences (for now) of what time bears out. Auden was right that Hoffmannsthal’s libretto is “too near to real poetry.” Popular “Komödie für Musik” as it is, maybe this opera can also be understood—or at least experienced—as exquisitely near to real tragedy.

Waiting for Bruckner

Christoph von Dohnányi, guest conductor
New York Philharmonic
Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center
Friday, December 11, 2009 at 8:00 PM

MOZART | Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364. Soloists: Glenn Dicterow (violin), Cynthia Phelps (viola)
BRUCKNER | Symphony No. 4

I dream of the day when a full cycle of Bruckner’s symphonies can come to New York. The way that Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler cycles can be expected to happen now and then (and have happened within this year or will next, with Barenboim/Boulez and the Berlin Staatskapelle, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, Fischer and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment as well as his own Budapest FO, Botstein and the American SO). Sibelius and Shostakovich deserve such studious treatment, too, of course—perhaps Tchaikovsky also?—though it doesn’t even happen as regularly as one’d want and expect for the symphonies of Schubert and Dvořák. For someone like Haydn the very dreaming is hardly tenable, and the experiencing might in fact become tedious, whatever one’s receptive stamina, under conditions of such serial completism.

But among all these master-workers of symphonic form, Anton Bruckner remains the least performed in the US. In New York he appeared on the programs of only three major orchestral performances in 2009—two at Carnegie Hall and one at Avery Fisher: the Ninth with Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic in February, the Eighth with Haitink and the Chicago Symphony in May, and the Fourth with von Dohnányi and the New York Philharmonic in three iterations this past weekend. (Last month the Bruckner Orchestra Linz performed the original 1874 version of the Fourth at Avery Fisher as well, but Bruckner is what that ensemble mostly does. Next spring here there is only one program I’m aware of: the Seventh with Masur and again the NY Phil, with a four-night run.)

I attended both of those American orchestras’ Bruckner concerts in NYC this year. Bernard Haitink did lead the CSO to a heroic all-out effort, drawing out some harmonies that exfoliated the piece of its (relative) familiarity, and there were especially stirring contributions from the cello section. But the Chicago’s venerable brasses often pummeled out of the way or trammeled underfoot other crucial textures. These observations vaguely particularize because the performance did as well—rather than bringing to life the cascading cathedral of the whole. Still, all hope for Bruckner in America will likely have to remain with the CSO, for heritage’s sake and because it still programs the composer several times a year. (Offering some foretaste of his imminent reign there (not here), Muti actually did the Second Symphony with the CSO in October. Spurned from the start by Wagner and by the VPO, which refused to perform it until Bruckner got his own financing and hired them to, when does this work ever get played nowadays?)

Though led by another European conductor long-familiar with Bruckner’s oeuvre, a familiarity documented by respectable if not revelatory recordings, the NY Phil’s Fourth was more disappointing. Despite considerable perseverance on the part of the musicians and collective excitability during climactic moments, this performance fell well short of welding and swelling as one. Problems of internal rhythm were audible throughout. Strings in the first movement sounded hesitant, as if waiting for those annunciations Bruckner gave to the brass before daring to join in as written. Consequently their crucial tremolos did not keep pace with and keep pressure on the ritardando of the five-note descending motif. Things got better in the second movement but coordination remained fuzzy during barer textures, and here it was the brass that stalled. The dance of the Trio sounded stiff, swingless. The orchestra was at its best when the score crescendoed to summits of volume and fervor. The ability to rally under these circumstances saved the Finale. The only thing one can do during an unsatisfying Bruckner performance is to trace along mentally what mechanically transpires—using the listening to internalize the score a little better. This performance managed to break up my inner hum-along all too rarely.

One cannot necessarily tell much from a conductor’s gestures—so much having already been rehearsed, one assumes, so much having gotten tacitly understood—but given the worrying proceedings it was perplexing to see von Dohnányi issue gestures that looked by turns lackadaisical and inconsequentially surgical. Had he not come with a strong idea of how things should go overall? Or—speculating from his occasional shuddering of hands that seemed to request a thicker rumbling of sound (a rare conspicuous manifestation of intent), and from the fact that none then followed—had he given up on this orchestra? Or, given the NY Phil’s reputation for holding back when led by conductors it doesn’t take to, had this orchestra given up on him? Or did getting Bruckner this far actually feel, for anyone involved, good enough?

The Sinfonia Concertante was great to hear as always, and made for canny programming, as its lively beauty could always be counted on to focus an audience’s attention, here readying it for Bruckner. Soloists Glenn Dicterow and Cynthia Phelps, who emerged from their usual roles as the Philharmonic’s concertmaster and principal violist, were admirable for their individual gifts—Phelps’s playing was contemplative and had a lovely velveteen tone, Dicterow’s was blither and fluent (though a very few high notes got a teensy tinny)—as well for as their meticulous synchronization. What their collaboration lacked was the sense of inexorable conversational relay that is the motor of this work’s momentum. Mozart’s writing virtually guaranteed, between the two instrumentalists, spirited scoopings up of phrases and gracious deliveries back of phrases. Friday night’s performance cruised along, but suggested a more binary procedure of dutiful (perhaps habitually collegial?) turn-taking.

[The NYT review was 70% conductor intro, 30% uninvested praise.]

ZANKEL HALL | Peter Serkin

Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall
Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 7:30 PM

Peter Serkin, Piano

SCHOENBERG | Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11
DEBUSSY | 6 épigraphes antiques
KURTÁG | Selections from Játékok: Pen Drawing, Valediction to Erzsébet Schaár; (…and round and round it goes…); Portrait; The mind will have its freedom…
WUORINEN | Scherzo
CHOPIN | Polonaise in C Minor, Op. 40, No. 2; Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 29; Etude in A-flat Major from Trois nouvelles études; Nocturne in E Major, Op. 62, No. 2
SCHOENBERG | Suite for Piano, Op. 25

Encores:
BACH | Prelude & Fugue in B-flat Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I
CHOPIN | Etude in G-flat Major, Op. 25, No. 9, “Butterfly”; Nocturne in F-sharp Major, Op. 15, No. 2

Serkin’s hands were fascinating to watch: the rippling sprawls, the feathery glides, the sniper-like dartings, the instant bounce-backs to midair arrest before the next dives in. Throughout the Debussy there was a magical lightness of touch that never came at the expense of clarity or warmth. These pieces, though only about 15 minutes in all, offered a sense-gallery of tautness and tenderness. Notes grazed, lingered, softly crumbled. Deft pedaling aided with subtle, not sentimental, hazes. These épigraphes were evocative independently, then, as well as effective for their original function: accompanying the recitation of Pierre Louÿs’ fin-de-siècle Sapphic verses, Les Chansons de Bilitis.

The four micro-selections from György Kurtág’s seldom performed series of exercises were charmingly willful (Játékok = “Games”). Particularly memorable for this listener: the brightly skittish, trill-intensive “Portrait.” Wuorinen’s Scherzo, written for Serkin and premiered last year, offered densely intricate, animated textures that upped their stakes (and raised the technical bar) along the way. Rigor and vigor defined the two Schoenberg sets that book-ended the program, in the form of focused intent and (again those) leaping hands.

Encore number one, the Bach, was taken at an unusually rapid pace; partly due to Serkin’s magic, and partly to the aural afterimage of Wuorinen and Schoenberg, perhaps, this prelude-fugue pair became scintillatingly enigmatic. It made me want to hear more Bach from him. To the Chopins—six in all, thanks to generous encores—he brought everything from everything above. In sequence, mere impressions, impressionistic for having been too engrossed to be alert registrar: sober, penetrative intensity, broken by lush quiets; fluid lyricism as well as muscularity; simple, lush blots and dapples; dreamy reverie from which it felt barely possible to recover; featheriest-ness.