The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

DSO Berlin/Metzmacher: Beethoven PC 4/DSCH 11 - great ferry across Styx from Elysian heights

This delayed broadcast of Ingo Metzmacher and DSO Berlin playing Beethoven and Shostakovich (May 11th) arrived here somewhat brutally hard on the heels of that of a Korngold opera. The contrast in programming could have hardly been more acute. In a pairing of Beethoven and Shostakovich, there was certainly a sung quality to both the musical content and as well to the music-making by Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire. One had the bel canto of the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto and then revolutionary songs of the Shostakovich. The promise of Elysium and associated mirth preceded expression of much torment and pain far beneath across the stream.

Metzmacher tends favoring limited vibrato from strings in classical music, but never to go arbitrarily doctrinaire on us - as found elsewhere. A sense of hushed reserve - much anticipation of opening out to far horizons opened the concerto from both Freire and DSO Berlin. The romantic space so aesthetically required around the bridge theme with precise pointing of dotted rhythms registered in full. Freire played with constant sense of great power in reserve, tracing beautiful obbligato to orchestral line, without having to yield much his own musical profile or character to it.. He, both quietly, alertly supported by Metzmacher, opened an often slightly too overlooked moment in C-sharp minor anticipating re-transition in the first movement, facilitating expression of fine contrast between introspection of that moment and capricious re-transition tritone harmonically apart a moment later.

From reading allusion to Anton Webern's comments on Mahler’s Lied von der Erde, this it could have been who might have been impressed by such evoking of memory as is this small place. The legacy of what music-making was heard Sunday was that such could so eloquently emerge and did. Especially in the recapitulation, the extended spinning out of the line from the bridge theme was bel canto aspiring to most sublime heights. Freire turned perhaps to autographs by the composer in making a few alterations to the cadenza of both first and last movements - with only a second of stumbling over something he, as though on the cusp, had grafted in. His ascent on solo line toward end of first movement to reaching great heights with very secure support below was practically book, chapter, and verse on what is sublime.

The thumping about one is so accustomed to at start of the slow movement was so nonexistent I had to consult a score to find that Metzmacher was certainly not clipping, but playing it exactly as written - with beautifully weighted emphases, accents, shape to each line. Freire responded to all apparent despondency with tragic eloquence, only understating slightly the 'lion's roar' toward bringing this to a close.

The finale, taken quite rapidly - tempos throughout this performance one cut a little quicker than average - promised and delivered great bucolic mirth in as open, guileless a fashion as to recall Fricsay. Freire, in the aesthetic and spirit of everything that had proceeded up to here, wisely eschewed thumping the start of the cadenza, thus making succinct the round in octaves opening it. The second theme, over cello pedal, soared to such extent to make so briefly time seem on verge of standing still. In contrast to that, also true in middle of the first movement, agitato passages, internally so rhythmically, were fully in character. While equally observing the joyously witty, bucolic character of the music, DSO Berlin rustled through the coda with great aplomb and precision.

Just something, though mysterious, about the Beethoven prepared us for a 62 minute trenchant event of music-making that has been a little rare with piece in question for its fifty years of life so far. The piece was the Eleventh Symphony ('Year 1905') of Dmitri Shostakovich – never before any favorite of mine. How many performances of this that stop, have ceased at just giving us an even basically good garden variety depiction of what happened ‘bloody Sunday’ of January, 1905 in St Petersburg? The metaphorical, almost metaphysical power of this performance achieved far more.

Had it not been the composer himself who wrote, in regards to his Seventh Symphony, that if those people out there who have said silly things about his music had read the Psalms of David, they would not have said them? Ingo Metzmacher and DSO Berlin proved that it might take more than words to make the reproof complete, but how did they achieve it? Without having attended rehearsals, one can only speculate.

First off, all cliche, banality, underlining, sentimentalism, other crap we usually hear with this piece just about entirely got erased, thrown out. In its place was a different type of expression - usually heard, in effect just hinted at incompletely as underlined, pointed out to make an already obvious point too obvious while still somehow paradoxically missing it. Here, we really did indeed have something consummate, much more so instead. Only the flutes at near the start of the first movement on 'Listen' (revolutionary song) seemed to miss some placement and color. No such issue ever arose again. Flutes almost perfectly corrected themselves when offered reprise of the same tune to close the first movement. Piccolo and flutes on reprise of opening of the first movement two thirds through 'January 9th (second movement) together with other winds revealed how far DSO flutes had significantly caught up by then.

Without underlining it, with air of stillness at dawn felt, DSO Berlin strings almost levitated the opening of the first movement. The violins found pristine intonation in modal intimation of B-Flat Minor for a highly acute E natural. It became clear then that something was up. We were perhaps to get a pretty good urbane, cosmopolitan interpretation of Eleven, much and as well played one might expect from Haitink; here, played ‘live’, things even this early with Metzmacher were taking off for beyond that. The spacing of muted trumpets and equally muted timpani on 'Crowd motif' - all perfectly terraced - enhanced feeling of something indeed very ominous. Lower strings eloquently intoned broadly arched melodic line of “The Prisoner.”

After hushed close to the first movement, the scurrying motion in lower strings for the second movement got underway - so rapidly that even though one could tell on close observation that all the notes were there, it was no longer notes being played, but instead agitation to be depicted - as though all contributing to a natural process itself. After playing with Metzmacher for nearly two whole seasons, it was also as though his violins had forgotten how to indicate shifts. One could not hear any. For once, with this music, they are inaudible. Needless to say, one still kept moving on to the next thing before the shock of hearing this music so very accurately this way could collect time to register. The easy road is to wear one's heart on the sleeve and dig in; that was simply not good enough for this music this (or any) go at it. The toccata near the close of this movement was not given ‘that swing’, so fatal to it. It turned out, after all this time, so many previous times, really cumulative, terrifying - not ‘film score.’

‘Eternal Memory’, with introduction of very tense anticipation, was played with great solemnity, without anticipation of, past brief Intro, any downbeats. Metzmacher, to provide balm, had his violins just gloss the major key ‘invocation to liberty’ middle section with right amount of sheen to form halo aloft. Brass continued implacably forthright, absolutely precise in shape and rhythm to open ‘Tocsin’ (finale), starting inexorable trajectory toward symphony’s close, broken just once by English horn solo played with Shakespearean grandeur. Lower woodwind triplets were played with uncompromising accuracy, with no intrusion of false accents or ‘shifts’ (since it is music first ever heard in the strings), a moment, since played badly, cripples the Barshai/WDR Koln recording here, after so much on it had gone well.

How could there have been any dry eye in the Philharmonie? The whole thing seemed to end, from what I could remotely sense, with a shudder over the hall. It is highly unusual to hear this music played absolutely without shortcuts taken as to how to fully achieve what has been called the most Mussorgskian of this composer’s fifteen.

There has been talk of the Soviet squashing of the Hungarian revolt in 1956 having been rationale for writing this piece. Certainly the motif of memory and recurrence, as cited as referring to between the revolutions of 1905 and of 1917 (spawned by the former) is very important, but I think in certainly a psychological way more important than just the retelling of two events. Communism in Europe, well before 1956, had become institutionalized to a great extent (though it still could be called a form of communism then) as type of fascism - legacy certainly mostly of Stalin, but before that somewhat of Lenin also as well.

The way I heard narrative told Sunday is that there are universal truths here paramount instead. This is music to which one does not need necessarily to know the revolutionary poetic text origin of its melodies to be able to fully appreciate what one hears, though it sounds as though Metzmacher made his players learn them. It is to some extent just music. Metzmacher kept temperature to proceedings cool, but while ensuring our getting in place of the usually expected with Eleven a far greater intensity from within instead.

Metzmacher gave Eleven a stature to sit unapologetically next to the composer’s not first but last three symphonies. Part of this was in the quiet, but completely acute register of subtle harmonic changes, changes to minor Neapolitan in already the minor mode, and in same sense equally modal sense of progression to the minor mediant numerous times. It was also found very internally in this music’s rhythms and how they are generated. These are all small, very little things it is so extremely easy to overlook or get casually just about halfway so often. Should one miss what seem just like minutiae to any audible extent whatsoever in playing late-period Shostakovich, then you miss playing late-period Shostakovich, all then glibly oblivious then to emotional investment contributed or involved. There was even a somatic sense of pain, with anguish so great in the playing, for alone the acute sensitivity to hearing many very close intervals (also in mixing and contrast with open ones). One has never had to go about all this artificially.

Moments occur a little further on than being just introduced to this that one gets pounding dissonances with again very close intervals involved. The effect here for once was fully cumulative instead of bombastic; it certainly could not happen by how much racket DSO Berlin could make with such a passage. Instead, one had sense of a new mechanized form of violence, still somewhat new to that time (to extent it had developed), but still too new for it to be accepted for any time. In quieter moments, working with an inimitable combination of open or perfect intervals and very close ones, one had sense of something still barely moving but frozen – almost perfectly imperceptible movement within this state – however much is illusion or real.

The slow, none too obvious shifting reflecting and/or refracted night light or artificial light on the square over frozen surfaces of course is what might feed somewhat the inspiration of such aurally recreated illusion. It feeds too metaphor of how much this music is of memory and recurrence - even the still living threat of recurrence.

One can not limit or codify what this music means, to any specific historical incident, including the terrible purges that had already taken place. Shostakovich, especially with the inexorability of the last movement, and how the music progresses almost quite inhumanely through such, wrote the Eleventh as a warning. That much is clear. It is a warning for our own time, even to leading democracies in power (including one in which this performance took place) across the world, as well as to one or two former leading communist states, including one that still is very much so in name, but really hardly anymore. At least there is not there nowadays the wholesale murder of actively living human beings like a full generation ago historical records have recently revealed.

Preceding six weeks ago broadcast of an altogether fine interpretation of Mahler 2 - only several seconds of pause separating the two - was an equally excellent performance of Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, Ligeti’s textural music, including his choral, is such that it is its sonorities that determine the form - similar to with the Shostakovich, working with very fine intervals. One thinks too of the music of Carl Nielsen, as so very influential on Shostakovich, in his music’s adoption of artificial scale patterns to thoroughly infuse its harmonic language.

Shostakovich was developing a part of his late style, albeit to less radical an extent than Ligeti in that sonorities started taking on formal properties. With the intense stoicism and anguish in the playing of DSO Berlin added to its other great virtues this time, DSCH 11 has never sounded more harrowing. Again, how often has this symphony sounded like ‘film score’ – even under Stokowski in Houston - and then how many times has it ever sounded anything like this?

Metzmacher has also conducted some Shostakovich with the London Philharmonic. To British falling over themselves over how wonderful the Korngold from Royal Opera sounded earlier this year writing in as though they could have missed something, the only sensible reply is ‘You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet.’ This concert marked a late arriving epiphany for me, in regards to Shostakovich.

Nelson Freire, with equally impassioned lyricism, played as encore to the Beethoven, Melodie d’Orphee (Gluck/Sgambati). That started me thinking - enhanced by Janos Gereben sending me his review of Metzmacher conducting a near definitive Stravinsky’s Orpheus in San Francisco two seasons ago. Allow me just one last moment to speculate further. What if Orpheus instead had used any tune or melodic shard from Die Tote Stadt to indicate pathos? The shades would have then made the Hades resound with the loudest yawn heard within yet, then would have categorically the guardians sent him packing with message to ‘get a life’ clearly in tow. Forget Euridice.

Had Orpheus showed up however with the English horn solo, as played by unfettered Orpheus from among DSO Berlin double reeds to nearly close the Shostakovich, the weeping of the shades instead would have been so wrenching that guardians below would have, in addition to letting Euridice go, had to put all remaining boarders out at least on furlough. Nelson Freire had unwittingly served double duty for the rest of us as also Charon for new arrivals to ferry across the Styx. He, I am confident, would still graciously concede to DSO English horn.

This was my first encounter yet with Metzmacher on Shostakovich. DSCH 11 received its American premiere in Houston fifty-one years ago. After hearing this, can there be further doubt as to where Metzmacher belongs in whatever conducting echelon devoted to Shostakovich? This was not just personal vision of Ingo Metzmacher – not at all - too selfless an effort - but something to be reckoned positively apocalyptic.

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