Do we need an advocate for Mendelssohn? Who, after all, wants to be a great Mendelssohn conductor, of all things, with the fusty conservatism that that unfairly implies? Who, as I tentatively do now, would own up to a great love of his symphonies?
Mendelssohn’s contribution to music history would be quite enough without his compositions. This, after all, was the man who ‘rediscovered’ the St. Matthew Passion. His music tends to be underrated, whether of itself or as a necessary foil for the great radicals of his day, Liszt and Wagner. However, in this fresh performance of his last symphony (albeit numbered the third), David Zinman and the New York Philharmonic showed that Mendelssohn benefits greatly from incisive playing and a vigorous but restrained sense of direction.
Read the rest of my review of a pretty good New York Philharmonic concert here, at Seen and Heard. Richard Goode was as enchanting as ever in Mozart’s K456.
In a revealing and very amusing podcast, Joanna Beaufoy interviews Peter Gelb for the French magazine Qobuz. Gelb talks film, conservatism, and Vladimir Horowitz’s coffin. Listen to it here (in English).
Nathaniel Merrill’s production of Der Rosenkavalier opened at the Metropolitan Opera on 23 January 1969. To put that in perspective, Richard Nixon had been sworn in as President as the United States only a few days earlier. James Levine had not even made his debut at the Met, let alone become its music director.
Quite a lot has changed in the interim, to put it mildly. “Strauss is in bad repute these days”, moaned the critic of theNew York Times, Harold C. Schonberg, in his review of the première. Interviewed a few weeks later, Der Rosenkavalier’s conductor, Karl Böhm, deplored the vacuity of contemporary music. Böhm, who had premièred Strauss’ Die schweigsame Frau and Daphne, declared that there “are no modern composers who interest me”. Who did he single out for particular criticism? The man whose anniversary was being celebrated in New York’s major concert halls while I was listening to this revival: Benjamin Britten.
Read the rest of my review of a decidedly mixed Rosenkavalier at Bachtrack here.
It would be easy to harp on about the period instrument movement’s effects on Mozart – often that would be justified –but Fischer’s treatment of the composer’s last and greatest symphony was so inventive, stepping so far beyond any kind of performing tradition, however pernicious, that there would be little point. It started as if grandly announcing an evening at the opera, music and audience uniting in chatty phrasing. The first movement never settled down, although that insatiable animation brought the fugal development to life. Insistent inner parts corkscrewed like Mannheim rockets careening into the sky. The glorious slow movement was a bit fidgety, but retained a darkness uncommonly found in Mozart’s music, a product no doubt of arranging the double basses (only four) across the rear of the hall, and allowing them, like Furtwängler-lite, to anticipate the beat. Chiaroscuro continued to focus on shadow even in the menuet, which was taken with an ominous weight. Finally, a festive conclusion was delivered with a spectacular vim, sounding as radical as Beethoven in the way it found unity from diversity.
An uneven concert from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Iván Fischer culminated in a spirited ‘Jupiter’ symphony. Read the rest of my review at Seen & Heard here.
Even approaching seventy years old Nelson Freire remains a vastly underrated pianist. Essentially a hero in Brazil – and the expat community here in New York – his subtlety, restraint, and nobility of interpretation are remnants of an earlier age. Rarely tempted to play with anything but the most genteel, almost apologetic emotionality, his pianism is elegant, refined, and never less than thoughtful.
So too, on this evidence, is his programming. Harkening back to recitals that encompassed the entire tradition, albeit updating Bach for more Romantic tastes, this concert was an outstanding, if bashful, success.
The very gentlest of playing from Nelson Freire in this concert of (transcribed) Bach, Brahms, Prokofiev, Granados, and Chopin. Read the rest of my review at Seen & Heard here.
So much myth has accreted to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony that it is difficult to know where to begin any more. A farewell to life? A farewell to a culture? A farewell to tonality? An affirmation in the face of death? A piece more from eternity than earth?
All of the above, really, and such are the exalted heights of Mahler’s achievements in this greatest of his symphonies that a satisfactory performance – let alone anything beyond that – is rare…. How to make Mahler’s vast musical spans seem whole when the music material, so curt to begin with, breaks down so often? And how to look forwards, to a Schoenberg already far beyond Mahler’s strained tonality by the time this symphony was finished, as well as back?
Michael Tilson Thomas didn’t really answer any of those questions in this Ninth, but it was spectacularly well played by the San Francisco Symphony. Read the rest of my review at Bachtrack here.
In a programme of Beethoven, Copland, and Steven Mackey, perhaps the most amazing subversion here was that by far the most interesting performance came in a Mozart piano concerto. Not that MTT or the SFS had much to do with it. For Denk’s was pianism of such invention, so far removed from any preconceptions of how Mozart ought to sound, that it seemed like MTT had no real idea how to keep up. The orchestra played as if stunned, and so they ought: in the way Denk mocked grandeur without losing sight of the humanity at Mozart’s core, this was like walking into the Met to find a floor covered in whoopee cushions.