More Delights in New York Concert Halls

by Sedgwick Clark

Gardiner’s “Authentic” Missa solemnis

I was driving with a friend over Thanksgiving weekend, and we tuned in during the middle movement of a Sibelius Violin Concerto on Sirius FM. I was quickly enthralled by the soloist’s rubato and technical command and declared him to be “an old Russian violinist.” When I heard the double basses’ pianississimo in the last five bars, barely audible yet with firm tone, I had no doubt: “This is the 1959 Heifetz with Hendl and the Chicago Symphony.” Indeed, it was. But what pleased me more than my good guess was that for years I have considered it inferior to the violinist’s 1937 recording with Beecham. The later recording’s freedom, especially in the finale’s wild accelerating into climaxes and subsequent backing off as the temperature cools, bothered me in my youth, but last week I reveled in it. The recording hadn’t changed, but I had!

I keep hoping I’ll change in my appreciation of “period” performances. Alas, except for a couple of pages at the beginning and end of the Adagio section of the Credo, where he managed to elicit momentary meaning and emotion, John Eliot Gardiner’s performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir at Carnegie (11/17) was his typically punctilious reading of notes on the wretched-sounding, so-called stylistically correct instruments that many find to be illuminating. With Colin Davis’s awe-inspiring interpretation with the London Symphony Orchestra’s modern instruments last season indelibly imprinted in my memory (10/27/11), Gardiner’s puny conception couldn’t hope to compete. The Times’s new lady on the aisle, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, filed a more welcoming point of view on 11/19.

Frühbeck’s “Charmingly Unstylish” Mozart

Far more to my liking, on 10/26 with the New York Philharmonic, was Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos’s charmingly old-fashioned account of Mozart’s Serenata notturna. In the Menuetto’s Trio, for the four principal strings, he didn’t even conduct but sat back and smiled while they played. (George Szell conducted solos.) Frühbeck was Musical America’s Conductor of the Year in 2011, and I went backstage to say hello. “I loved your Mozart!” I said in greeting him, and he laughed broadly. “Well, you know, that’s the way we all played Mozart when I was young. I know it’s not the way young conductors do it today, but I like it that way. The Philharmonic is such a great orchestra, and I love to conduct them. I’m going to do Heldenleben next season,” he confided with great relish.

Frühbeck had looked fine back in June, when he conducted Carmina burana, but not now. He had lost weight and walked to the podium with great effort and sat while conducting. I spoke with a friend in the orchestra, who told me that he had had stomach cancer; but his doctor assured him that his recent surgery was completely successful, and she said that he had conducted as if he had a new lease on life. The Philharmonic musicians played their hearts out for him in Mahler’s First. Next summer he will conduct the Boston Symphony in Mahler’s Third in the opening weekend at Tanglewood.

DiDonato’s Drama Queens

Kansas mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is irresistible, a self-evident statement to the some 2,800 music lovers who delighted at her catchily dubbed “Drama Queens” recital a couple of Sunday afternoons ago (11/18). The program encompassed a selection of arias from Baroque operas that depict queens and royalty, including works from Orlandini’s Berenice, Cesti’s Oronotea, Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, Radamisto, and Alesandro, Giacomelli’s Merope, Hasse’s Antonio e Cleopatra, Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide, and Handel’s Giulio Cesare, plus orchestral works by Vivaldi and Scarlatti. She’s presenting this recital internationally for the next year, and Virgin Classics just released her recording of it. Her backup band, Il Complesso Barocco, with Dmitry Sinkovsky as director and violinist, was ideal.

Philharmonia on My Mind

Everyone at Avery Fisher Hall was talking about the ravishing sound of the Philharmonia Orchestra. It wasn’t that Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting Mahler’s Ninth (11/18) and a semi-staged version of Berg’s Wozzeck (11/19) was small potatoes. The Philharmonia has a noble tradition for its beauty of sound. Created just after World War II by Walter Legge primarily as a recording orchestra, its timbre was honed by Furtwängler and Karajan in many recordings that have never left the catalogue. Klemperer was its most visible leader from the mid 1950s through the end of the next decade, with memorable concerts and recordings during that time by Giulini and Frühbeck de Burgos. But its direction and reputation had begun to falter during Klemperer’s decline in the late 1960s, which led to a freelance image buoyed by occasional appearances by such notables as Boult and Barbirolli.

But no one could remember when the orchestra last played in New York. The most recent I could recall was in November 1971, when the orchestra was named the New Philharmonia and Avery Fisher was still called Philharmonic Hall: Lorin Maazel led crack renditions of Sibelius’s Seventh, Delius’s Paris, and Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite, conducting the latter’s hectic final dance with his rear end.

Calls to Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall’s Archives revealed that the Philharmonia graced Fisher Hall most recently in January 2002 with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting. Prior to that were concerts in March 1988 and January 1990 conducted by the orchestra’s then-principal conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli, an interesting but variable maestro. The ensemble’s most recent New York appearance was in a pair of Carnegie concerts in October 2003 with Christoph von Dohnányi (in works by Bruckner, Wagner, Haydn, Brahms—no wonder I didn’t go), a maestro whose sole distinction, to my ears, lies in performances of the New Vienna School and complex 20th-century works.

So perhaps the way to get the orchestra noticed is to play compelling programs, eh? I have no doubt that E-P wanted the audience to make the connection of Mahler’s final completed symphony (1909) with Berg’s first opera (sketches begun in spring 1914, orchestral score finished eight years later, premiere performance by the Berlin Opera under Erich Kleiber on December 14, 1925). In other words, had Mahler lived, the late-Romantic language of his valedictory Ninth Symphony would have developed into the ripely atonal world of Berg’s Wozzeck.

In the Mahler, Salonen’s tightly knit opening movement was most impressive, avoiding the incoherent sprawl of many current performances. Still, the triple-forte climax, which Mahler marks “with utmost violence,” could have been more cataclysmic (where was the tam-tam?). The middle movements lacked character, and the finale was shapeless. The brass did not always avoid the Fisher Hall glare but otherwise played with distinction. Woodwinds were infallible throughout, with honors going to the bassoons and contrabassoon. And the strings! Their consistent beauty of tone, from whispered pianissimi to massed fortissimi, and attention to Mahler’s frequent portamento indications were the highlight of the afternoon.

In Wozzeck the next evening, the Philharmonia was simply astonishing, conjuring up orchestral wonderment that even surpassed the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under James Levine. However—and it’s a big however—Salonen allowed the orchestra to cover the singers so often that their only recourse was to bellow (the Berg Bark?). Of the major roles, heard from audience right in Row V, only Angela Denoke’s touching Marie and Tijl Faveyts’s cheerfully demented Doctor went unscathed. In the end, frustrating though the vocal balance may have been, the tradeoff of hearing Berg’s orchestral writing played so magnificently won the day for me. And if a recording was made in London before setting off on tour, the engineers can fix it in the mix!

Salonen is the Philharmonia’s current beau, and judging from the clamorous audience response he may turn out to be what the orchestra-lovers’ doctor ordered. Lincoln Center already has two major Brit bands as regular tenants—the London Symphony and London Philharmonic—and it would behoove Jane Moss and company to add the Philharmonia to its stable ASAP.

Looking Forward

12/1 Avery Fisher Hall. New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert; Gil Shaham, violin. Steven Stucky: Symphony. Barber: Violin Concerto. Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances.

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