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.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Muti, NY Phil on subject 'at time of war' - Honegger, LvB Eroica - more indicative of change of leadership at Avery Fisher

It might, figuratively speaking, require a return of Paul Kletzki to life to get to the spiritual core of the two works that featured on this Philharmonic program. Riccardo Muti proved that he can at least aspire to such for the Honegger and has achieved at least near as much, though differently than could Kletzki on the Beethoven.

Theme of conflict or time of war in pairing symphonies by Honegger and Beethoven was clearly unifying behind program the Philharmonic played on November 28th. The Second Symphony for strings and trumpet (for hymn quote to close the finale) is very likely the most precise of the five Honegger symphonies, composed during early phase of occupation of Paris and of much of France during World War Two. Muti, in touring with Vienna about two years back, programmed Nobilissima Visione by Hindemith, and also in putting a rare Hindemith cantata on previously at Avery Fischer, revealed here with the Honegger too that he continues to expand on repertoire to be at his behest.

My first experience of the Honegger was with Paul Kletzki and the Houston Symphony on program with Brahms Fourth and Vivaldi concerto grosso months before he passed away. The imprint of having attended this concert so long ago never quite entirely wore off – partly as I never heard the Brahms conducted better live since – not even, though passably, with Thielemann at Academy of Music in 1997.

Muti, with the Philharmonic, was most effective in bringing out this music’s bronze colors, dissonances and strong antiphony between varied groupings of voices. Some hardness to the sound he brought out of the strings is not inappropriate here; spirited quality of the playing was evident throughout. He maintained well a strong pulse through even the slower sections for instance of the first movement and lingering, dying off coda to the second movement. Distraught solo viola, followed by imitating section behind Cynthia Phelps, was full-throated in its ardor. Muti firmly, strongly projected accents to canon developed first theme of the Allegro, but undercut space, nuance for briefly passing second theme. Something approximating a hatchet type of downbeat across full section on stage helped however started to make the music sound on verge of becoming two-dimensional in perspective.

The letting of strings full out on sequence of suspended major sevenths leading into retransition not for purpose other than to display the lushness of the Philharmonic section made for stiffness to line for making eventual segue through two episodes that followed. Attack returned to be deftly pointed for sparse accompanied gigue like motion by cellos to recapitulate the opening Allegro theme – then trading off places with the second theme. Brief, long descent by cellos, to allow tentative shaft of light into the all pervasive gloom was effective; for sense of mildly broader perspective, more room for nuance, sinister insinuation could have been made of the coda.

Motive in small intervals, as especially dominates lamenting Molto moderato sections of the first movement constantly underpins the Adagio mesto - used thematically as well. Muti made heavy underlining of change from playing upward sighing half tones to descending, for such shift to be felt. By the same token, emerging long spun out descant on first stands of the cellos stood out as relatively arched. Dynamics here, as elsewhere, were followed well, if not as subtly as possible. Heavier stepwise motion in minor/major sevenths followed quite dutifully well according to how all that had preceded them. Muti effectively loosened reins on this music in response to return of simple single line lament spun out over tremolo for slow, flexibly expanded out descending descant in violins, then for eloquently spun out eulogy by Carter Brey (cello) to close things out.

Some obvious accenting, getting into the finale, turned vulgar, with violins making slightly too obviously vertical accenting of lighter heroic gesture on first entrance of theirs in the Development section. It all made their part sound quite like Prokofiev. Certainly, within healthy jaunt to it all, the accent is already there. It practically speaks for itself, so that some of the rough-hewn edges of this music should and can more naturally be made evident. Hard accenting between offbeats in violins and rushing stretto underneath became stiff, on verge of clotting during the recapitulation for missing too often already the Gallic trait or virtue of this music having so much internal accenting, pulsation of its own; trumpet hymn at close was almost too obbligato to sizable forces in his midst, followed by some ‘upper west side’ from the strings in bringing all to a close. Veteran principal trumpet Philip Smith cleanly achieved fine expression for closing lines of hymn.

Albeit a little stilted, two-dimensional for some of the Honegger, Muti convincingly captured the spirit, a fine mix of mourning and steely resolve, essential for this music. If not always internally being able to plumb the solemn depths, metaphor of so much here, his body of string players at Avery Fisher certainly got him part of the way.

Among (true) digital recordings of Eroica, the Muti with Philadelphia, perhaps the one very unqualified triumph in their fine Beethoven cycle together, ranks alongside Michael Gielen on the same label as unsurpassed. The spaciousness, flexibly lean, sinuous grace of the strings and warmth from Philadelphia winds and subtle variation in accenting all make something of the complex and expansive proportions of the piece, without ever loss of momentum. Such qualities are hallmark of the classic 1946 reading by Victor De Sabata with the London Philharmonic - legacy to which Muti most flexibly likely pays fitting homage.

After a fiery but flexibly molded truly optimum Schubert Ninth a year ago, and both poetic and blazing performances of Liszt Faust and Respighi’s Pines preceding it, this Eroica instead rated just a qualified success. One recalls as well the so varied layers of mystery for Scriabin’s Divine Poem, achieved by most supple means and farther back to the Mediterranean warmth, light and shade for Brahms’s D Major Serenade, alongside deftly pointed Turandot Suite (Busoni) and other repertoire off the beaten path Muti also champions elsewhere. His partnership at Lincoln Center, dating from shortly before the Maazel years started, has certainly been very healthy for both him and the Philharmonic.

For almost two pages of the first movement - thrust externally applied - things seemed to start off on the wrong footing. Once solo winds provided their consequent, overall line freely opened out, followed by controlled sustaining vibrato through heavy chords toward clearly pointing out their laendler gait. Things then seemed on the right track and as though they would remain so – apart from Muti applying puffy tenuti on accented offbeat heavy diminished chords, derailing focus momentarily.

Sculpting of much transition through early phases of the Development got played sympathetically with ease. While Muti however still maintained poise by internalizing all he could, the hatchet type of attack typical of Philharmonic strings subtly worked back in, especially in making way into dissonant ending main part of the Development. Fortunately however all attack and release was secure through climax to all this. More fully formed inversion of theme from the Exposition Leonard Bernstein was heard commenting upon during broadcast interval as new theme in the Development i.e. ‘Song of pain after the Holocaust,' ( i.e. how did Lenny ever pass sophomore theory?) with one or two further rationalizations to follow. Fortunately Muti indicated hearing this passage differently. There was less secure accenting in coming off also in E-flat Minor main theme octave tremoli sequencing in mostly the strings.

Muti maintained line through the recapitulation well, but trouble still lurked in having to openly try avoiding excessively vertically approached strong downbeats, as opposed to forming good line through everything. Ability to do so provides more basis for contrast instead of less, as his Philadelphia Eroica disc could tell us. Impression of this perhaps needing another several days of rehearsal to set things straight began to sink in – clearest evidence of this being Philharmonic trumpets soon before the coda verging on ‘upper west side.’ The music was written at time the area’s settlers did not yet know such geography. Contrast was clearly felt between lovely phrasing by lightly accompanied principal horn and too vertically approached extended dominant chords - inorganic from what had preceded them - into final cadence.

Finely moulded, not generically dovetailed cantabile most distinctively marked opening of the Marcia funebre - first stand winds most remarkable in capturing the right mood of it all and internal morbidezza to their lines. Strings still perhaps got caught a bit loose from their moorings on accenting, thus mildly phlegmatic in attack. Most desired expressivity by Muti became generically compromised by verticalized approach to rhetorical accents and reply thereof. For Muti, passing maggiore episode to follow was uncharacteristically heavy, stodgy, providing little needed relief. Slightly too obvious intrusive accentuation marked further compromise, as though we should behold a meeting of minds between Muti and the Philharmonic. Impression instead grew stronger that there might, other than from among wind principals, be effectively only one mind at work here at all.

Most of the way out through the coda, Muti achieved most desirable focus, somewhat lacking earlier, with approach to submediant cadence into the coda only shifting the lens from the podium momentarily and awkwardly onto what really was transpiring. Beautiful space was provided unison pianissimo violins for brief (re)-transition from fugue to recapitulation; dying out phrasing of the strings had all covered morbidezza one could desire. For so much previous lapse from the strings, their neighbors two hours to the south, if they could still play the Eroica as they did twenty years ago, would need not fear their competition. Closing phrases to this Marcia funebre provided final fully achieved moments of poetry for the Beethoven here.

In following scherzo, phegmatic attack by the strings overwhelmed lift for reply from animated woodwinds, dampening thrill of being at the ready to go out for the hunt outdoors. The strings’ too projected presence also made them rob themselves of a good forty percent of pulsation to their accenting - closer to all of it needed to generate either any steam or joie de vivre for this venture. Muti marked entering caccia horns (Ttrio) with light tenutos on their first downbeats, mostly as though to serve notice to the strings, that if ever an Eroica with them again, things should not go so awry.

Coming off a dull rendition of the Scherzo, rush down strings opening the finale was only tentatively achieved. Early variation starting on second violins achieved heavily bowed results to less than optimum effect - triplet accompaniment for next variation similarly heavy. The Prometheus theme resounded lightly in the winds, until the strings took over from them. Transition to first fugato episode (C Minor) got vaguely sectionalized, with expressive descant at end in firsts just achieved halfway. For continuing a Tchaikovsky or Balakirev Eroica, vigorous dance in G Minor had accents correct, but all joylessly belabored in achieving them. Second fugato began well, but so true to the bar-line from one third into it that it came off two-dimensional. The Andante epilogue was only episodically effective and then coda at more a true Allegretto stodgy. Wind concertato and then impassioned G Minor cadence in the Andante, both in passing reflected well upon better results achieved earlier here - and then reflecting further back on how a true Muti Eroica could perhaps still really sound, indeed resound.

This Beethoven Third seemed mostly to indicate new change of leadership at Avery Fisher Hall - redolent too of the hollowness, superficial podium editorializing (in the name of interpretation) of the Maazel era. Even late-career Maazel had the craft to keep house in order, so when Muti would drop by, all could then readily fall into place. If the strings however have suddenly achieved (again) lockstep into type of fraternized, codified entrenchment in approaching task at hand, regardless who takes the podium, then cause at Avery Fisher then for now is lost until new leadership once more can be found.

I refrain from making any final judgment or prognostication here. Going so far would be malapropos for a short while yet. Equally malapropos was including for broadcast interval the Bernstein editorial on Eroica first movement. Beyond what one can deem sophormoric, it insipidly told us nothing – to supplement what was slightly below par for what we from experience reckon Muti at Lincoln Center.

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