Thursday, January 21, 2010

boulezapalooza pt. 2

Tuesday, January 19
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson, conductor
Kyoko Takezawa, violin

Messiaen, Les offrandes oubliƩes
Berg, Violin Concerto
Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring

When I go a few months without seeing the CSO, it's easy to forget how amazing they are. The last performance I saw was Muti's Bruckner 2, an inspiring rendition of a thoroughly uninspiring piece. Tuesday night's concert was one of those few events where programming, repertoire, conductor, and orchestra really cohere into a great night.

The grouping of these pieces, which I am guessing like the Civic concert was chosen by Boulez in correspondence with Robertson (something Andrew Patner corrected me on in boulezapalooza pt. 1), was wise. Two pre-war modernist warhorses, and a rare work by a major composer still finding his voice. I can't say the Messiaen was a huge success, but it was certainly worth hearing. Written when he was twenty-eight, the music betrays influences that I never even thought Messiaen had. The opening and closing sections foreshadow the Messiaen of the Louanges from the Quartet for the End of Time: gorgeous, slowly unfolding melodies in strings and winds, marked by stratospheric leaps and moments of celestial harmony. The sudden transition into a fast and dramatic middle section, which sounded almost like a 19th-century Lisztian tone poem, bears no resemblance to the mature Messiaen. The mere idea of a jolt or surprise, a quick change from slow to fast, is foreign to the ecstasy of Messiaen's major works, in which each movement creates an unchanging, paradisaical vision of the beyond. I can't say I liked it; I think it would have been a better piece with the middle section simply cut out. And the Messiaen of 1930 hadn't quite mastered the slow, ecstatic adagio which we see two years later in L'Ascension. But it was still nice to hear an unknown piece by one of my favorite composers, and the orchestra played with a wonderful delicacy throughout.

The Berg Violin Concerto is my favorite work for violin and orchestra, and not just because it has a great saxophone part. This is one of the most difficult works for violinists, and Kyoko Takezawa gave a technically assured performance with a gorgeous tone. But her playing lacked the almost-Schubertian, Viennese lilt which is essential to the music; it was also often a bit too overtly pretty, and could have been brasher at times. Under Robertson's commanding presence, the CSO delivered a muscular but beautiful performance---this is one of those few great concertos where the orchestra is arguably more important than the soloist.

It's been a while since I've seen the Rite live, and that made this performance all the better. Robertson did something I've never heard with the work: he made it lyrical. The opening section, with its swirling kaleidoscope of primordial colors, was excellently paced. When Robertson arrived at the rhythmic ostinatos of the first section, they were restrained rather than explosive, lush rather than fervent. Each section shimmered like Daphnis et Chloe, reminding me that in 1911 it was possible to see Stravinsky as part of the same school as Debussy and Ravel. It never quite exploded, but intensity was always present in the chugging rhythmic drive. Because of Robertson's pacing, the cacophonies seemed like an inevitable clashing of the initial solo voices.

Rarely does a performance make me completely re-think a work, but this one did. I wonder: is this the goal with the Rite? To make it sound not modern, but like the Debussy and Ravel we can listen (and fall asleep) to on our clock radios? That's not to say it wasn't a passionate, inspired performance; it was easily the best rendition I've heard of the work. We have to remember that fifty years ago, it was difficult to hear this music as the score portrays it. With the exception of Stravinsky's, most mid-century recordings of the Rite lack the orchestral balance (making up for it in loudness) to give a proper idea of how the music "should" sound (and I put should in quotes to acknowledge that there's no actual way the music should sound). Pierre Boulez was instrumental in his performances and recordings of Stravinsky and his contemporaries, stripping away the kind of haze that floated around most recordings of Debussy and offering clarity and purpose in its stead. I think Robertson takes this one step further: he restores a lyricism to the Rite, not necessarily present on Boulez's recordings of Stravinsky, while retaining the balance and clarity of Boulez's conducting. Robertson has an unambivalent love of Stravinsky; Boulez's conducting of this music is tempered by the difficult relationship he has had to it (and to Stravinsky himself) in the past. Alex made a note of this last year in regards to the two conductors' performances of Pulcinella. It would be too easy to categorize all of Boulez's interpretations as icy or cerebral. But when you hear his Rite (most famously recorded with the Cleveland Orchestra) against Robertson's, there is definitely something missing: unbridled passion.

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