Monday, March 29, 2010

tod und auferstehung

Align CenterOtto Dix, Tod und Auferstehung (1922) I. Der Selbstmörder (Erhängter)

Carnegie Hall Presents
San Francisco Symphony
Westminster Symphony Choir
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Katarina Karnéus, mezzo-soprano
Laura Claycomb, soprano

Mahler, Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection"

Ah, Mahler 2. I should put a disclaimer at the top of this review: it’s almost my favorite piece ever (that goes to Opus 111, a story for another day).

Dix, Tod und Auferstehung II. Schwangerschaft

MTT has been perfecting his Mahler over the past decade in San Francisco, taking the best of Bernstein’s interpretations and leaving some of the fatty excess behind. But before I delve into the performance, I want to talk briefly about something I saw at the Neue Galerie earlier Friday evening. Promenading through their pictures at the Otto Dix exhibition (see what I did there?) I discovered a series of drawings by Dix titled Tod und Auferstehung. Now, in 1888, the year of Mahler’s Second, resurrection in Germany must have seemed like a pretty good deal. You die before the beginning of the symphony, get a certifiably dramatic funeral march, a gradual parade of nature and eternal light, and then an epic, half-hour Auferstehung. The hero comes back to live, everyone gives a standing ovation, we all go home happy. German spirits in the 1880s were high (Mahler was working primarily in Leipzig and Prague at the time), with the arrogance of Bismarck's unification and Prussian military dominance still in the air.

Dix, Tod und Auferstehung III. Lustmord

In the wake of humiliating defeat in World War I, the prospect of a heroic death and a mystical, quasi-Christian resurrection was not so simple (not that I am calling Mahler 2 simple). Instead we get Lustmord. I'm not sure if Dix's six drawings depict a specific narrative. But we have suicide (via hanging), pregnancy, sex murder, war, more war, and finally the hint of resurrection. Rather than a single, titanic hero put to death and brought back to life, Dix creates a collage of death representing the destruction of Europe, the wasteland of Germany, and the inanity of war. No life breathes in the belly of the pregnant woman, as she stands over a severed head. Dix is known for his utter crassness in detailing the most horrid visuals of wartime, and these six drawings are no exception. Death, as conceived by Dix, overturns Mahler's affirming tranfiguration. It's either a pathetic self-induced strangulation, a sadistic sex murder, or bloody and honor-less war. One can imagine Mahler's hero in some kind of heroic battle, or maybe even stabbed in the back like Siegfried; for Dix, there are no heroes.

Dix, Tod und Auferstehung IV. Die Barrikade

Most interesting is the final drawing of the set, depicting the funeral of Dix's protagonist (I use that term loosely), with his spirit floating above the processional. This is not the public resurrection of Mahler, with hundreds of voices intoning "Prepare yourself to live!" Instead, Dix gives us something more private, and more pathetic. It's not clear if the spirit is floating up to heaven, coming back to earth, or simply watching his funeral Tom Sawyer-style. But none of the mourners pay him or the coffin any attention; he is just one of the many dead, no special titan worthy of any particular resurrection. It's an eerie portrayal, the polar opposite of Mahler's rhapsodic Aufstehung.
Dix, Tod und Auferstehung V. Toter Soldat

Anyway, back to MTT and the SF Symphony. The orchestra played a rich and precise opening, with whiplash winds and growling low strings. MTT brought out each effect in the funeral march well, without going overboard--the huge "shock" effect right before the recap, with a moment of cataclysmic silence followed by the opening low-strings machine-gun attack, came across perfectly. And before the final build-up to the end of the movement, there was a beautiful moment where time stopped, with transparent and lithe string tremolos.
Dix, Tod und Auferstehung VI. Begräbnis

MTT phrased the second movement carefully, transforming the leisurely ländler into a kind of slow-motion Beethoven scherzo. At times it was a bit sluggish and could have used more lilt, but overall the style came across. San Francisco's orchestra is not quite at the level of those in Chicago or New York, as evidenced by the fuzzy and imprecise pizzicati section. The beginning the third movement was also rough but locked in quickly, with excellent violin solos by concertmaster Alexander Barantschnik, who played with lovingly old-skool slides. MTT created a massively chilling cry of despair, the huge deceptive cadence towards the end of the movement, one of those climactic and badass Mahler moments.

Mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus gave the weakest performance of the evening, in a rather forced and staid Urlicht--she did not capture the anguished, pre-Resurrection atmosphere of the folk song, and her vibrato was too wobbly for me. But the Resurrection itself was epic from the rumbling start. MTT finally went all-out, milking each climax without heading into the schamltz direction. The San Francisco brass were particularly impressive, with each chorale hushed and balanced just right (the woodwinds, though, had a number of weak moments, with disappointing oboe and piccolo solos).

Unfortunately, the sustained hum of the first choral entrance was matched in volume by our favorite New York coughing and rustling. It's amazing the sheer density of coughs this audience can put it in just a minute or two. But the last ten minutes were certifiably awesome, and the hero definitely got Resurrected. This is music that I can't describe because it moves me so deeply; I just cannot come up with the words. So I will simply say that MTT and the orchestra nailed it.

The Otto Dix paintings are courtesy of the Galerie Nierendorf website, and can be viewed fully here.

back in chicago

I have returned to Illinois after a fantastic bout of concert-going in New York. See reviews here, here, and here. Forthcoming reviews of Nico Muhly's and Doveman's show at The Kitchen and the San Francisco Symphony's Mahler 2 at Carnegie with MTT. Unfortunately the entire Nose run was sold out so I missed it.

We are now a month away from Music Marathon, which you can read about on my blog here. Donate! Get involved! Do something crazy!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

HIPer than thou

Lincoln Center Presents
Beethoven Then and Now: The Complete Symphonies
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Iván Fischer, conductor

Allan Kozinn had some issues with the marketing of this weekend’s Beethoven symphony cycle at Lincoln Center (split between the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Budapest Festival Orchestra). I didn’t really see why this was a problem; although Thursday evening’s performance of Beethoven’s Second and Third was the only one I could attend, I imagine it would be exciting and invigorating to see two separate orchestras, with two distinct (but recent) traditions, performing Beethoven symphonies under the direction of one master. And what a master: Iván Fischer brought more insights to the symphonies than I have heard in a long time, and his intriguing interpretations were bolstered by the orchestral style as well as the acoustics of the new Alice Tully.

The two key words for the evening were balance and contrast. Unlike the post-Wagnerian orchestra (I will not use the term “modern,” because if anything the period or HIP orchestra is actually the “modern” invention; see Richard Taruskin), the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has the perfect balance between winds and strings, at least for this repertoire. Lines that feature prominently in a solo woodwind instrument, typically obscured in a large orchestra, float out among and mix evenly with the string timbres. And Fischer revealed every single contrast present in Beethoven’s scores, placing deliberately each subito dynamic change so that the score came vividly to life.

The Second Symphony, probably my least favorite of Beethoven’s Nine, came across marvelously. Although this work has its charms, it never struck me as particularly dramatic. But Fischer carried a cohesive sense of tension and release through each movement. Woodwind intonation issues aside (these were quickly resolved for the rest of the performance), the orchestra handled the first movement deftly, with a graceful but punchy sound. Fischer’s tendency to phrase each small section occasionally made for a choppy effect, but the piece moved so briskly it didn’t really matter. The Larghetto was the only real weak point of the evening, but that’s partially Beethoven’s fault: it’s just not a very interesting slow movement. Fischer did his best, aided by the orchestra’s polished brightness. In the crisp Scherzo, Fischer highlighted every detail, making the Haydenesque forte “surprises” all the more striking. And the finale was almost tyrannically bucolic, a frenzy of pastoral delights. Towards the middle of the movement, I heard something I didn’t know was there—a delightful, peckish little bassoon solo, usually hidden behind the strings, came to the fore.

But throughout the Second Symphony, there was one question on everyone’s minds (okay, maybe just me, him, and him): How would this bouncy, lively, and not-particularly-sustained style translate to the Eroica? Fischer could create exciting contrasts and touching little moments, but the Eroica requires long, deliberate dramatic arcs. The Beethoven of the Second and Third are very different creatures, so how would Fischer work with this orchestra’s specific sound to create the hyper-Romantic sound world of this heroic symphony?

Like the Napoleonic hero of the symphony, Fischer prevailed. This was the best Eroica I have ever heard, channeling the spirit of Beethoven. Justin Davidson just wrote a great article about the Eroica’s power over contemporary society—does it still have the power to shock? If it doesn’t, Fischer certainly did his best. The opening chords were urgent cannon shots, launching the vigorous, rocking Eb melody. Fischer accented each halting gesture and incessant, clashing forte blows of the C# dissonances. Iif anything, the result was a modern sound: it felt entirely fresh, lively and unabashedly un-Romantic. He untangled the twisted counterpoint of the first movement’s brief fugue, rendering each line with clarity but exigency. The layout of the orchestra, with first and second violins placed opposite rather than next to each other, produced lovely antiphonal trade-offs towards the end of the recap. Rarely would I use to the word thrilling to describe a performance, but this was just that.

If I had to pick a single favorite movement in all the Nine, it would be the Eroica’s Marcia funebre--the ultimate example of orchestral pathos, a dark counterpart to the heroics of the opening allegro. My conductors of choice are those that bring out this tragedy, creating cascading waves of music, an oceanic sensation that points ahead to Wagner—Furtwängler, Bernstein, Walter. Fischer and the orchestra created narrative through entirely different, but wholly effective, means. He tapered Beethoven’s long lines, producing small chunks of tight phrases and snappy rhythms—remember, this is a funeral march. It was not exactly fluid, but Fischer compensated with a powerful mass of raw sound in the climactic sections. Whether due to the use of period instruments or the careful orchestral balance, the fugue was breathtakingly clear. Its motto, present in solo woodwind parts and usually overwhelmed by a heap of strings, tolled like funeral bells—a remarkable effect, and all I could think was that Beethoven wanted it heard this way. The accumulation of orchestral effects reminded me more of Mahler than Wagner, especially in the lilting return of C major, a whisper from beyond the grave.

Following such inspiring playing, the final two movements felt like afterthoughts despite being of the utmost brilliance. The scherzo ran like clockwork, with jaunty winds and a beautifully muffled sound in the strings. And the hunting horns of the trio produced a juicy crunch only possible with period instruments. In the finale, the radiant full orchestra was almost disarmingly pleasant, with each variation building towards a bawdy, rustic coda.

If it requires period instruments to render Beethoven like this, then by all means let’s all buy some 18th century flutes. But I don’t think it does. The attention to detail and precision came out of an ensemble which has re-evaluated all of the de-facto practices of the “modern” (aka post-Romantic) orchestra and taken what works, leaving behind what doesn’t. It may have not been the original goal of the HIP movement (back when it was all about Authenticity), but I’m glad this is the direction it took. After hearing the OAE’s brass, I never want to go back to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The blaring horns and trumpets in both symphonies seemed effective and appropriate (and, dare I say it, badass), where loud brass would be vulgar in any Beethoven performance by a CSO-size orchestra. Critics often accuse Fischer of idiosyncratic performances, but I’ll take idiosyncrasy over the alternative any day.