Sunday, June 03, 2007

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, Conductor; New York Choral Artits, Joseph Flummerfelt, Director. June 2, 2007.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Second Tier Box Rear (Seat 20F2, $43).

Program: Brahms the Romantic – A Philharmonic Festival

Variations on a Theme by Haydn by Brahms (1833-1897).

A German Requiem, Op. 45 by Brahms.

We had tickets for June 9 and 16 (both programs conducted by Riccardo Muti, with Lang Lang playing Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto in one) but wouldn't be able to make them due to our planned trip to Asia. We got tonight's ticket in exchange for one event, and gave the Lang Lang concert tickets to a friend. While I would like to see Lang Lang and Muti (whom I still have yet to see), I am also glad we went to tonight's concert.

Brahms' first foray into symphonic work was with these Hadyn Variations. He composed a score for two pianos and another for an orchestra. Interestingly, most musicologists today believe the theme wasn't written by Hadyn. The piece contains the theme (Chorale St. Antoni - Andante), eight variations (Poco piu animato, Piu vivace, Con moto, Andante con moto, Vivace, Vivace, Grazioso, Preseto no troppo), and a Finale (Andante). This composition is quite unusual as variations go - the theme only unmistakenly appears in the first and last movements. Nonetheless, the 20- or so minute piece was quite delightful.

As with many of Brahms' works, “A German Requiem” underwent many revisions before Brahms finally finished it. Most Requiems are based on the Latin requiem mass text, starting with Introit et Kyrie and ending with In paradisum. Brahms chose for his work different passages from the Bible, in German. He also said his work could be called “A Human Requiem”. There is no mention of Christ at all in the text, but there is a strong sense of faith and redemption nonetheless. This piece was played by the New York Philharmonic on September 20, 2001 as a memorial for the 9/11 attacks. The headings of the pieces are (i) Blessed are they that mourn; (ii) For all flesh is grass; (iii) Lord, teach me; (iv) How amiable are Thy tabernacles; (v) Ye now therefore have sorrow; (vi) For here have we no continuing city; and (vii) Bleassed are the dead.

The piece was very enjoyable, and moving. The soloists were the soprano Celena Shafer and the baritone Matthias Goerne. While up to the task, they had relatively minor roles (each sang for fewer than five minutes). The New York Chorale consisted of about 80 singers, they were generally quite good also. They couldn't get all the s's and t's in sync, though. And there were many of those sounds in the German lyrics.

We were in the city early, so we went to the pre-concert talk by Charles Borstein, scholar in residence at the Philharmonic. He talked about two things in the Requiem: the seventh interval which recurs in every movement, and the Dresden Amen. I only caught glimpses of them during the concert. He also mentioned the piece was not motif-based but was rather harmony-based. While I understand what he said in the abstract, I am not sure I agree with it, and there were certainly many motif-sounding fragments to me. When asked whom the Requiem was written for, he mentioned it might have been for Robert Schumann, or Brahms's own mother. Then he made the insightful remark that at the end the composer wrote it for himself.

The requiem was 70 minutes long (advertised as 60 in the notes). Maazel conducted it without music, although I was a bit worried about his stamina – he seemed a bit tired at the end. It was a great performance, though.

The New York Times preview of the program (which also reviewed an earlier program) is brutal, severely criticizing the perceived lack of originality of the “Brahms the Romantic” series and Maazel's handling of Brahms in general. Let me repeat: I thought the evening's performance was quite enjoyable.

Friday, June 01, 2007

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, Conductor; Julian Rachlin, Violin. May 26, 2007.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Second Tier Center (Seat AA110, $60).


Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36 (1887-88) by Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908).

Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61 (1880) by Saint-Saens (1835-1921).

Concerto for Orchestra, BB 123, Sz. 116 (1943) by Bartok (1881-1945).

The overture by Rimsky-Korsakov is quite interesting. It contains many solo lines (flute, cello, violin, trombone, etc), and some passages are very typical R-K. The short piece (16 minutes) has many mood changes. Some of the passages very quite difficult and the orchestra was a bit sloppy at times.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov belonged to this nationalistic group of five Russian composers (“the Mighty Five”) that also included Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui, Modest Musorgsky, and Mily Balakirev (organizer and R-K's mentor.)

I couldn't remember what the violin concerto sounded like. It turned out to be one that was quite familiar to me. The three movements are: Allegro non troppo; Andantino quasi allegretto; and Molto moderato e maestoso – Allegro non troppo. The concerto was dedicated to Pablo de Sarasate. The performance tonight certainly didn't start auspiciously, with the beginning sounding quite lethargic and the violinist having some intonation problems with notes played on the bridge end of the finger board.

Luckily, the performance eventually settled into a rather pleasant rendition of a virtuoso piece of music, noted for the extensive use of harmonics. The clarinet doubling accompaniment made the passage especially dreamlike and enjoyable.

Lithuania-born (1974) Rachlin plays the 1741 “ex Carrodus” Guarnerius del Gesu violin. Guarnerii are usually noted for their smooth tone, and they usually don't project very well against an orchestra. This one seemed to do well, though.

Bartok came to the United States in 1940, and by 1943 had developed the first symptoms of leukemia, his weight falling to a mere 87 pounds. He was also financially strapped, and his similarly displaced Hungarian friends Fritz Reiner and Joseph Szigeti asked the Boston Symphony's Serge Koussevitzky to commission Bartok to write a new symphonic work. After being convinced that this wasn't an act of charity, Bartok wrote the piece at a rural mountain getaway at Saranac Lake, New York. Bartok's commented on the piece at its premiere: “The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sterness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third to the life-assertion of the last one.” The five movements are (i) Introduction: Andante non troppo – Allegro vivace; (ii) Game of Couples: Allegretto scherzando; (iii) Elegy: Andante non troppo; (iv) Interrupted Intermezzo: Allegretto; and (v) Finale: Pesante – Presto. There was no pause between (iv) and (v) in tonight's performance. (Most of this paragraph taken from the Notes to the concert.)

I usually enjoy Bartok's music. However, I didn't find tonight's piece particularly captivating. Perhaps it was its length: a bit long at 40 minutes. Or perhaps it was its complexity. In any case, the program notes also talk about a parody of a theme from Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, which was in turn copied from Franz Lehar's operetta The Merry Widow. Describing it as “rude vulgar” was probably a bit much, but it certainly sounded out of place.

See also the New York Times review of the concert. The reviewer thought the entire concert was on the vulgar side.