Concerts that Take the Breath Away

by Sedgwick Clark

In the past two weeks I heard two concerts I’ll never forget, both at Carnegie Hall. 

The first was on February 17, with my favorite European orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw, playing my favorite Mahler symphony, the Third. The CGB was Mahler’s favorite orchestra and its music director, Willem Mengelberg, the only conductor other than himself who performed the music the way he intended. I’ll bet he would have approved Mariss Jansons’s conducting on this evening, which reminded me of Horenstein’s noble interpretation. Even if I prefer a slower tempo in the finale, the music unfolded naturally and without the impatience he had demonstrated the night before in Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. And the playing! It was simply stupendous—rich, warm, expressive, unforced musicianship that we modern Americans think of as “old world,” available on our side of the Atlantic only from Philadelphia on its best days (we’ll see if Chicago can reclaim its stature when Muti has settled in). Astonishingly, there was not a single strident note in the entire evening (and no wrong ones, either). The posthorn solo—suitably distant—took one’s breath away, and for once one’s stomach didn’t clutch as the climactic high A approached. To say that the contributions of the mezzo, Jill Grove, and the New York Choral Artists and American Boychoir, were up to the orchestra’s standard is the highest praise I can imagine.

The timbre and style of playing achieved by the Minnesota Orchestra under its music director, Osmo Vänskä, on Monday (3/1) was totally different but no less astounding. Vänskä seeks absolute transparency of texture and perfection of detail and attack. Thus Beethoven’s normally lumbering full-orchestra arrangement (by the late Michael Steinberg in this instance), taken at a ferocious clip, emerged lithe and dynamic, as if played by the world’s finest quartet. The first and second violins were split left-right, and throughout the concert I’ve never heard the seconds make such a strong impression on that side of the stage. To hear the five string bodies converse fortissimo with such unanimity and split-second force was jaw-dropping, but the pianissimos—a Vänskä speciality—arrested the listener’s attention no less. More than once I exclaimed to myself, “My god!”

After intermission came Sibelius’s nationalistic symphonic poem, Kullervo, an 80-minute piece for two soloists, men’s chorus, and orchestra. It tells a grim story about a thoroughly unpleasant “hero” who was separated from his family as a boy and many years later encounters and unknowingly rapes his sister on his way home from paying taxes. He woos her with the words:

“Come into my sledge, my dear,
come under my rug, my darling,
there you shall eat my apples
and crack my nuts at leisure.”

Her entirely understandable response of “I spit at your sledge, you villain, you rat. . . ” ires him to commit his foul deed, and at the end he falls on his sword in contrition. Those who know the composer’s compact later symphonies may be surprised at this early work’s garrulousness, which owes a strong debt to Bruckner, especially in the work’s structure and frequent lengthy pauses, which Vänskä fearlessly honored in full, presumably beating the longest rest clearly so that the audience would not applaud prematurely (it also ensured that his players would not mistake their entrance). Despite its dark story, it’s actually a rip-snorting piece, with Sibelius the inspired melodist and tone painter apparent throughout. The choral passages roar along with Brucknerian panache (cf. the Austrian composer’s Te Deum), and the soloists add high drama to the overall effect.

Kullervo’s New York premiere by the Nashville Symphony under Kenneth Schermerhorn, at Carnegie in 1979, and a Brooklyn Philharmonic performance led by Robert Spano in 1998, were good, but this Minnesota outing was in another league entirely. The wonders of ensemble were jaw-dropping. As usual, Vänskä’s laser-like ear and care for balances revealed hidden treasures in nearly every bar. He must have rehearsed those creepy first-violin downward-slithering pianissimo motives early in the second movement for hours to get such uncanny unanimity. Never were the strings overwhelmed by the brass, as happens with many orchestras, and the woodwinds contributed many distinctive solos. And when, I ask, did you last hear double basses in such perfect, pungent tune? I wonder if the Minnesota players know just how extraordinary their playing was on Monday night? If this was an example of their standard level, the orchestra’s subscribers may be the luckiest in the nation.

The encore, Finlandia, complete with the male chorus in the final bars, was icing on the cake.

Bleeding Olympian Chunks
Was anyone else bothered by the slicing and dicing of music for the ice dancers at the Olympics? Carmen, Scheherazade, Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody—on and on, brutally abridged to match the choreography rather than the other way around. Certainly those involved had no awareness of the jarring juxtaposition of keys.

And then there were a couple of General Electric commercials. The poetic slow movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G served as background to how a woman’s cancer was treated. Three sections of the opening solo piano statement, before the flute and strings enter quietly, were used. Its soothing character was perfect, and I was pleased to hear Ravel receive such exposure, however anonymous. Still, why not allow the music to play as written for the length of the commercial? I’ll think it over when Alexander Toradze plays it on Sunday (3/7) with the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski at Lincoln Center.

In a second GE commercial, the famous Beethoven Ninth melody is intoned by children around the world saying “ah” as doctors depress their tongues. That was fun.

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