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.

Friday, October 9, 2009

DSO Berlin, Metzmacher on tour - Edinburgh, Bonn - Part 1

Designed, figuratively speaking as a three-composer tribute to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Ingo Metzmacher took to Edinburgh toward close of their annual festival an already proven, fine program he conducted last spring in Berlin and on visit to Hong Kong last spring. Zubin Mehta, with the VPO, little over a week later – transmitted live and thus without delay of several weeks - framed penultimate night at the Proms in a quasi neo-baroque program of his own. The same Webern and Brahms framed Strauss's Don Quixote instead of the Berg concerto on it. This was programming to be entirely assessed on its own, and in numerous ways on its own still rich merits; these two works would not carry the universal appeal if the only acceptable interpretations of them nowadays were as I describe below.
The Schoenberg orchestrations of several organ chorale preludes and the St Anne Prelude and Fugue by Bach are by now well known along with Webern’s more brilliantly transcribed ricercar from A Musical Offering.

With a musician as involved, immersed in the music of the New Vienna School as is Ingo Metzmacher, one might feel to be on verge of reading about chilly, detached, academic interpretative work for all three pieces – for sake of achieving absolute precision of execution. Such certainly did not turn out either to be the case.

In the spacious, shallow acoustic of the Philharmonie, Metzmacher last spring adopted quite a headlong pace to Anton Webern's Opus 1. It stressed quite tautologically such a linear approach to this; suggested was most of what is to be gleaned from it is just what is key in it to quickly emerging expressionistic phase of Webern’s oeuvre. It is such that eventually takes us as far as through the more pristine cantatas, variations, symphony (Opus 21) of his late period. One missed just a bit such risk-taking at Edinburgh of putting such music on what just on a course seemingly a little more detached from its tonal moorings than is yet the case even with Webern. More detailed attention however happened at Edinburgh as to Webern’s craft of applying ‘perpetual variation’ he had learned from Schoenberg – all at a slightly more relaxed pace there than had been the case last spring.

Those passages however that Webern in tight rhythmic planning of everything has made sound fractious - as almost on verge of collapse - Metzmacher keenly observed and again at slightly broader pace at Edinburgh. The rigorous moments of stretto that internally provoke such agitation, increased tension came fully across with fiercely incisive, precise and weighted accenting.

Incidence of color got just lightly acknowledged here, as primacy got placed here on line and the motivic development within it instead. If, as a consequence then, color would form, it did so independent of approaching this music from perspective of applying any kind of external emphasis or stimulus, romantic, impressionistic, or otherwise. The combination of lightly providing reverb for opening pizzicato statement of opening theme with observing dry space in-between such pitches was very closely observed. Toward the end of the opening minor key section of the passcaglia, Metzmacher placed offbeat replies to line in muted trumpet as motivically connected or related to it, while very deftly keeping it texturally placed apart. Concertmaster obbligato during the brief four-variation D Major section, followed by equally succinctly achieved duo of muted trumpet and clarinet helped provide some expected warmth, but again without looking to any artificial solution to enhance any effect with this. Such level of subtlety could not be expected from Mehta and Vienna. As representative of this piece as their playing was, nobody attended that concert to hear real Webern – composer who already saw well ahead of all the current trends of his time – that one got in both acutely and warm, dramatically contrasting enough perspective too from Metzmacher and DSO Berlin.

In what turned out to be the best of three performances of the Passcaglia thus far I have heard from Metzmacher – the first having been with the San Francisco Symphony, he had maintained the same vision in mind with it as he had previously. Here he found it most eloquent to stress the progressivism of this music by more subtle means or emphasis. I have yet to have heard more definitive on this piece.

The Brahms Fourth Symphony closed this program, again as earlier in Berlin and Hong Kong. The weary tone from the violins with which they opened the first movement, casting its autumnal glow through feeling with line more than with external appliqué recalled well similar opening the classic Klemperer EMI recording. Austere accenting and close observation of the classical proportions of this work throughout was remindful of the same legacy. Metzmacher limned such proportions rhetorically with the utmost simplicity giving the tragic stature of this music its full weight. Within seemingly broader confines of a shallow sounding Philharmonie last spring, Metzmacher elicited a little more supple flow to the line, so fluid in applying separations within the line toward maintaining what would communicate as a free and easily achieved legato through so many lines given the strings.

Contrast here between incisive stretto accenting with more reflective musing or back-placed slow arpeggios from violins was made acute, within still supple context. The allargando arched line for violins in octaves during bridge to flowing second theme was curiously taken all broadly legato at Edinburgh - with offbeat staccato chords underneath strict and incisive. Autumnal hues also informed the wistful duet for clarinets in G-sharp minor and gentle retransition into the recapitulation, much as happened under Mehta, but here within context of a stronger profile, toward eventually bringing the first movement to a trenchant close.

Past well gauged severe handling of unisons and resonantly voiced chorale in winds on first theme for opening the Andante, orchestral landscape opened out - within context of beautifully maintained proportions - with fine ease. Transitions involving strongly accented triplets were firmly incisive, stringent enough without taking such passages so detached as to break the overall line here, even at Edinburgh. Metzmacher limned first statement of the flowing second theme with violin section obbligato over arched cello line, of supple and subtle separations between groups of two and four notes, toward again achieving for all a most true and freely achieved legato. The recapitulation opened with fine simplicity, breadth, and sense of awe, such as suffused the gently wistfully clarinet led interlude before final coda reprise of main theme. Such was all beautifully supported by fully voiced horns and refulgent sweep in broadly enunciated accompanying strings.

For a festive sonata-allegro scherzo (third movement), Metzmacher pushed at Edinburgh perhaps just slightly harder than necessary. While yielding for a lightly achieved second theme, with piquant marking of repeat note upbeats and accenting in light percussion, the inexorable drive to this was not to be denied. Following a flexibly molded brief retransition, the triplet consequent (to main idea) started the recapitulation trenchant and firm. The caccia bucolic handling of strong horn triplet varying of Theme 2 segue into the Coda helped it past mildly shaky ensemble from strings, to start it, to a resounding close.

After what had been heard with the Webern on this program, the passacaglia finale to the Brahms posed no challenge to Metzmacher, but with nothing here taken for granted, all the same. The opening theme was ideally firm, solemn, fully voiced, continuing so through first variation all the way down to tremolo beats on low E’s in the timpani. Winds entered austere and somber with obbligato over bass line, then yielding to contrasting variations of antiphony, stretto, and as to in a sense of building such architecture as this passacaglia, a living interaction thus between so much that well beneath its surface had been so rigorously achieved. Light triplets in higher winds, spinning off the line of passacaglia in light antiphony between strings and lower winds very gently framed a very cogently shaped flute solo, avoiding all sense of the lugubrious in its more simply achieved tragic accents here. Reply in maggiore of clarinet and oboe to the flute solo led into sonorously achieved warm chorale in the horns, with rapt moment in anticipation of fierce recapitulatory reprise of passacaglia theme in full brass. Even as things proceeded in seemingly a firmly, rigorously straight line through peroration, Metzmacher opened space for the two brief lyrical interludes that remained, while also achieving incisive scherzo accenting of triplets in the winds, where they come in – all to a trenchantly achieved tragic conclusion.

Differences in interpretation were not so great, but if one was looking for the Brahms Fourth of a little greater tragic weight of the two, then this recent Edinburgh one was it. A more teleological approach, pointing up even applying romantic tendencies into overall phrasing as helping elucidate too some of the more progressive tendencies of this music seemed to have been a little more the case in Berlin. It was however probably the closing passacaglia in Edinburgh that benefited there the most from what minor differences did occur.

Moving on to Bonn, featured on the program there two nights after Edinburgh was the Beethoven ‘Eroica.’ Things got off to a very bracing start, for a first movement that was without being excessively fast, constantly headlong. Formal shape and proportions were clear, accenting to such very clear, yet one expected a little more yielding to passages such as the secondary strand to the first theme group, laendler accents to first part of the second theme, and inversion of the previous as it reappears during the Development and recapitulation. Even a little broader space for C Major opening to retransition toward end of the Development would have been good. No doubt, the forward thrust to all this was spirited enough and music-making here was not so rigid to be completely devoid of warmth, but for avoiding threat of being perceived as two-dimensional or too academic with this, Metzmacher could have only relied upon taking a little more of a subjective stance here. He yielded for a couple of phrases during the Coda to the first movement somewhat for last reprise of the inversion theme introduced halfway through the first movement. Also memorable however was the firm trajectory he sought and achieved through a bracing body or central section of the Development through its famously dissonant climax. With a little more variety of pacing in this, it still would have stood out more – still without turning such episodic as on Bernstein or early Abbado recordings.

Nothing conspicuously wrong, but the opening of the Marcia funebre became clear indication of what a few real shortcomings here were. I am content that memory serves me right as to the beautiful, even somewhat romantic, not only rhythmic shaping he gave so very specifically the opening of this movement – as heard live from Berlin last fall. It can be suspected that Ingo hearkened to the sirens’ song of ‘period’ or ‘historically informed’ a little all too well for clue as to how to supposedly make some interpretative corrections here lately. He almost this time got the rhythmic shaping of the opening lines of the march correctly, except for ever so mildly clipping it. The Beethovenhalle in Bonn is a bit dry, so the more diffuse space in the Philharmonie should once more be taken into account. And yet at risk to getting as specific shaping of everything as Metzmacher wanted on the first movement last fall, his shaping of the first movement there was more flexible and mildly more expansive.

Triplet upbeats in violins and lower strings for the march were spot-on, and space provided was pleasing enough for openings of lines to both halves of the Maggiore section, both culminating in fierce accents, as did also the cumulatively achieved fugue that followed it. Note the sustained anguish into trilled cadence from violins in descant toward achieving fine gravitas for all what ensued. There is no rhyme or reason to attempt today taking this music to late-Furtwanglerian lengths and with such preponderance likewise, but for taking another minute or so, Metzmacher should not be despised for, for instance, getting back in full again the hushed quality to closing lines of this and deeper sorrow so much of this music expresses throughout. Michael Gielen on dvd takes similar pace to the march, but with more appreciably full note values upon which he insists therein.

The drier acoustic in Bonn served Metzmacher excellently for bracingly paced Scherzo and lusty trio for trio of horns at center of it, with excellent spring to rhythms and exuberance to go along with it at every point. The scherzo here was thoroughly a success. Metzmacher did not hesitate announcing a headlong pace for the finale, even forcing – in alternative scoring available here – solo string quartet from within the ranks having to almost fully skip a beat or two, for pushing things along so. No special,judged to be insipid enveloping of the second fugue in the last movement was to be found in Berlin either, but here it more merely sounded rushed into instead of just happening so spontaneously as was desirable. Execution, especially out of lower strings in DSO Berlin, going at such a pace, was something at which to marvel, nevertheless. Bucolic romp in full gear was certainly made out of the dance variation in G Minor that preceded it; it must have been nothing short of terror struck into the heart of the principal flute the pace his variation went, directly preceding that. No conspicuous enveloping of the opening of the Andante epilogue to the finale was present in Berlin either, but romantic shape to this great opening of slow, augmented ‘Prometheus’ was clearer. Shaping of the same opening was just a little better than adequate in Bonn. :Light rustic concertato of winds here was equally fine, but leading into a more portentous louder reprise of slow ‘Prometheus’ with accents too projected on answering octaves in brass to hardly serve any useful point – such as one could only find conventional. In Berlin, the ‘heroism’ of this passage was understated, making it movingly the case that the hero here has emerged here from among common man. Though Metzmacher marvelously accented the climax in the mediant (G Minor) in Bonn as well, it stood out in greater relief, even a little more radically so and all as so profoundly felt in Berlin last fall.

After just good space provided for closing hush to the Andante, the closing Presto – so ‘off to the races’ – made for a hair-raising close to what was so often a viscerally exciting account of this piece, fortunately still considerably close to being as free of cliché as earlier in Berlin. Whatever shortcomings the Bonn ‘Eroica’ had for partly following a bit what dogmatic, doctrinaire trends fill our cultural midst – strings so light on vibrato throughout for instance – at least better to have such an approach from someone so fully capable in grasp of form, as opposed to the quasi-academic dilettantism of a Zinman, Vanska, or worse, Zander. Two ‘Eroica’s I have now heard from Metzmacher give indication that most likely all will eventually yield fruit – in part in being more specific as to impetus, intent than was achieved in either Bonn or, with ideally interpreted even numbered movements, Berlin this past year.


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