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, February 12, 2010

DSO Berlin: Hans Graf conducts Barber and Schubert - Andreas Grunkorn, cello. Is it real, Graf, or click-track?

In 1988, the Houston Symphony brought Michael Gielen for a very special honoring of the eightieth birthday of the now still living 101 year old Elliott Carter, pairing his 1961 Piano Concerto (Ursula Oppens) with the Schubert Ninth Symphony. It was Christoph Eschenbach’s first season - Eschenbach who almost exactly three years later conducted Schubert Ninth in much fussier manner than did Gielen, with less formal clarity, balances and execution than Gielen had spiritedly, unobtrusively achieved here. Late 1980’s was just about time Ingo Metzmacher finished apprenticing in Frankfurt under Gielen.

The Houston Symphony has never since sounded better than on the occasion of Gielen’s only visit here. I can not recall them again sounding as good as they did on the bright, crisp late November Sunday he was here – even for once to deny that there is anything to be concealed by the bone-dry acoustics of Jones Hall. It was this good.

[February 21st, 2010: I forgot to note while first posting this that Ferenc Fricsay planned to conduct the Schubert Ninth Symphony in Houston at Music Hall, circa November, 1954, but he then changed second half of the program to Schubert Eighth 'Unfinished' and Beethoven's Leonore Overture #3].

Last Sunday DSO Berlin hosted Houston’s current music director for a program of Samuel Barber and Schubert. Whereas in subtle, internalized ways Carter and Schubert share some affinities for progressivism, they are, by conjecture, more externally similar in terms of their openly deep introspection and slight tendency to bombast.

DSO principal Andreas Grunkorn was soloist for the Barber Cello Concerto, proving supple with the technically difficult part - even more importantly giving this music clear direction and line. There lacked perhaps the last degree of character or personality to his interpretation of the Barber. Whatever inhibition encountered, the blame for it certainly can hardly at all be laid at his feet alone. Hans Graf maintained a deferential accompanying stance to Grunkorn- with coloristic pointing of filigree in woodwind tremolo at several points. The music in the hands of both Grunkorn and Graf managed to reservedly hold up a semblance of - as Virgil Thomson made reference - ‘Brahms-like grandeur’, but in playing out so much, some other elements went missing.

It is odd to report here that Graf’s relatively inflexible approach to the Barber – inability to adequately pick up numerous contrasting elements within - was more something to keenly listen for than it was for the Schubert. The jazzy syncopation, blues bend muted trumpets in the Barber perhaps were apt to be toned down; here it was frequently to extent of all being perfectly staid – even if Barber’s inculcation of some elements in this fine score is stylized. Other than ability to gain a pleasantly supple, if still flaccid ease to handling of such passages in regular meter (as first movement statement of opening theme), this was so. Graf overtly relied upon trumpets, brass for securing downbeats during the first movement a little much.

Key change from cellos and basses, while uncharacteristically playing flat the main siciliana of the second movement, got compromised. Expressively memorable alone was Grunkorn’s eloquent take on brief sequencing of upward arpeggios, midway through - more shape to them than for principal orchestral line above - and then for expansive unaccompanied transition toward close to the Andante moderato. Such fine rhetoric followed brief sequence of trills from the winds conspicuously detached from statement of the main idea.

Graf opened the finale stiffly, leading Grunkorn at first, for sake of coherence to abet opening idea coming across as more ‘academic’, poor man’s Hindemith, than snazzy as it should be. Graf, even for simpler wind concertato stretto, fell into habit of marking time, effect constricting space for Grunkorn to be able to flexibly spin his virtuoso figuration off such stretto. Run up through high register following perilous double stops also got inhibited at the end of the first movement. Some of the writing in this concerto even resembles quite often the soulful rhythmic jauntiness of Medea (ballet) written for Martha Graham at near the same time.

Marking of downbeat to accompanying bluesy second theme in the finale was stilted too, inhibiting what imagination the soloist might invest into it. More important perhaps that the soloist not get in the way of Graf’s ability to keep all well organized, regardless the cost of his having to engage within tight spaces some very tricky cross-rhythms. Grunkorn handled closing virtuoso fireworks with aplomb, even through perilous writing in high register. Where earlier Grunkorn could make some lyricism stand out, he still most certainly did. Graf slipped in managing to well co-ordinate with Grunkon’s line beneath the solo high trumpet stretto descant driving argument forward to the end.

Less eloquent case was made for the Schubert Ninth Symphony that followed. On the plus side, this Schubert Ninth carried some rhythmic vitality through most pacing of it, but mostly which got applied from without instead of found within. Contrasting formal periods, paragraphs of this music got sectionalized to extent of becoming unnaturally compartmentalized from each other. Such was Graf’s insistence on strict downbeats for cause of keeping ensemble together, regardless the cost.

Fully less imaginative among examples of music appreciation instruction came to mind, for all the heavy stress on so much pedantry. For example, so paramount is how well something functions at following ‘textbook sonata form’ that the entire purpose of the music having been conceived in real style of form would get lost. Or what is most de rigeur about music becomes so pedantically explained that all interest in the music itself then is lost. One sensed DSO Berlin getting what to those most in the know is a ‘Norton scores’ approach to the Schubert Ninth. For two years now they have so brilliantly produced in front of them complex beat patterns, securely backed by clear explanation of purpose in getting across with much simplicity so much frequently at stake.

The stentorian reply within oboe solo continuation of the main theme, in motto leading the introduction, was all played at monotonously stilted fortissimo from the brass. Repeated notes, two-three-four, in brass should really be, it seems, equal in weight and as loud as the main theme. Transition into main Allegro of the first movement, while maintaining equilibrium, sounded careful, stiff, with only tentative shape to crescendo to transpire, build excitement through it to follow. Opening theme of the Allegro Schubert need not have marked that the dotted quarters get more weight than alternating eighth notes, that is until he might have had chance to hear Graf at it.. Graf’s making all equal in weight made the dotted quarters sound clipped, even while abstinent from doing ‘period’ Schubert.

Little was made of transition to follow; textures began to clot in the antiphonal stringing out of what follows. Though yielding into a more promising start to the recapitulation was welcome, things returned to continuing down a stiffly predictable path the rest of the way out, with monotony and intermittently less than optimum clarity of ensemble between strings and woodwinds.

The second movement fared little better. Though perfectly moderate marcia pacing of this was apt, accompanying dotted rhythms stood out so pronounced as to jalmost verge on caricature of Wanderer motif to it all. Tutti response to main theme, from the get-go, was stiff, lacking sufficiently varied weight and color. Middle section transpired matter-of-fact each time - even more so true in recapitulating it (while applying detached subito piu mosso - 'suddenly faster' to it) to extent that while still moderately paced, line coursing through it just about entirely died.

Graf reckoned it prudent to render entirely missing contrast between pairs of loud octaves - eventually making for hard-hitting trudge through closing measures of the second movement. Where Graf attempted luftpausen for such through closing passages of this, he denied especially his brass and lower strings space for reaching well below some of the true resonance from which Schubert built unique harmonies and placement thereof. Expressive shaping only occurred where most obvious, such as for extended cellos’ retransition off rigidly engaged dissonant climax two-thirds through. Hatchet-y attacks from strings on heavy chords throughout became consistently unidiomatic.

Just bare minimum in shaping the scherzo’s second theme was reckoned practically sufficient, though with DSO violins infusing such with almost right lift, light step to it. Even through wonderful harmonic changes in the Development, figuration in the strings continued unvaryingly and brass excessively stuck out. The songful trio section lacked shape, coming off brass and winds’ tuning up on chain of repeated octave E’s to get things started reasonably in tune. Graf over-emphatically underlined the brief C Major episode occurring past midway through the Trio.

The finale began stolidly. Strings of DSO Berlin sounded stressed at all valiant effort to remain together on rapidly moving triplet figuration. The music took such a pause before second theme, fortunately with some lift to it, that it seemed to happen as to make some pause to catch a breath. Graf streamlined paraphrase of Ode to Joy while making considerable strain to scrupulize keeping dotted rhythms beneath together. Right before this, intriguing highly chromatic slow emphatic sequence of chord change in lower brass was played so note by note as to have missed what point there is to it at all - quite the same as happened between heavy octave chords in the second movement. Especially the violins of DSO Berlin however had to have then surmised seeing the end to all this in sight. They suddenly became much more cohesive, pliant making with all effort and aplomb something cumulative out of closing a moderate paced, but still heavily belabored Schubert Ninth. So much emphasis on principal trumpet occurred, to keep things aligned well, one might fully expect Graf to put fine principal trumpet of DSO Berlin on front stand with concertmaster Wei Lu next time Graf should return and it be relevant to have it so.

I was only able to catch two closing paragraphs to Schubert’s Overture in D Major, D. 12, written when Franz was fifteen - showing a determined precocity, even in experimenting with form more than he could make effective yet.. Such precocity is further evident by, following opening D Minor intro, chord progression for opening of its Exposition section aping that for first movement of Mozart’s Prague Symphony. The over-scoring of so much, that had to came across wonky in this outing by DSO Berlin, revealed Schubert, individualism of his writing already apparent, his attempt to compose sonata form well beyond yet attained level of maturity. Such is also true with stubborn holding onto the tonic throughout Exposition of both overtures in D Major he wrote at the time (D. 26 the other) - then to recapitulate each second subject in A Major, before each time jerking us quickly back to the tonic just in time to rescue all formal logic.

One may reckon me disloyal, being from where I am, in being so hard on Graf; in my defense, after what Metzmacher has achieved with DSO Berlin, it would be demeaning to them to be writing in otherwise. In Graf’s defense, he has in Houston applied at times some intellectual acumen to his craft, his having come from tradition of sorts; as such he has so casually, even often at times both here and abroad put such aside. It could be he feels inhibited, working with different class of musicians than he is accustomed in southeast Texas – or that he got cold feet and decided that best way to proceed was ‘safety first’; the music here just called for so much more than that.

There was sloppily more kink to Eschenbach’s 1991 Schubert Ninth, but more color, contrast, more drama; it too put one at considerable strain to sit through it. Graf conducted Schubert Ninth here for first in pair of two weekends with which he made his Houston Symphony debut in March of 2000 – in program paired with John Adams’s Century Rolls with Manny Ax. Carmina Burana (Orff), paired with Mozart 'Prague' went the distance toward making Graf music director to succeed Eschenbach. Some of Charles Ward’s comments about the first concert I have just have found after writing so much above, are very interesting. Recall that Adams’s concerto then got programmed with the Schubert brought up that perhaps Graf had in mind even last weekend a way to find a new chic modernity in taking on Schubert - for it to have turned out sounding so two-dimensional as dud this one. It is, after all, music for players and audience respectively that “probably literally, they can play and hear in their sleep.” Yes, Graf’s Schubert Ninth put underneath one’s pillow, ought to work well – if kept at low volume.

Ward (Houston Chronicle) found the HSO Schubert “lithe, flexible, and transparent” for a piece that – in somewhat a moment of anti-Eschenbach rhetoric here (to reflect sentiment in some quarters at the time as is common for anyone taking leave of such hallowed ground) “does not invite grand or grandiose ‘statements’ of conductorial and orchestral achievement.” Oh, how I would love to be a bird on the rafters of the Philharmonie when Ingo gets back into town, and then (let’s say) tells DSO, “Let’s get together next season, guys, and do Schubert Ninth”- for reaction he might receive. The opening horn solo to Charles Ward was so interesting, being just there for Graf to announce “that the piece was commencing.” Yes, exactly. A ‘Norton scores’ Schubert Ninth would precisely say so.

I heard some of the Graf 2000 Schubert Ninth and can not adequately remember it, but for now can not help but quote passage in full, on Graf’s conducting of the Adams.

“Had the performance been up to standards, the listener might have found some humor in [the Adams) as well. As it was, the orchestra seemed to be struggling with the piece's rhythmic foundation. It was still foreign to too many players Monday (third time). Century Rolls needs players to have a sense of rhythm similar to a "click track," that metrical tick-tock a conductor has in his ear to keep an orchestra aligned with a film in live performance. Beats and divisions of beats have to be precise; they can't bend or be even microscopically off.” How good for the Barber if they could have ‘bent.’

Could have Hans Graf returned to re-read the above, when contemplating how to take on the Schubert afresh lately? Though a bit erratically aligned at times, I could indeed sense a click track to the Schubert this go at it. More punishing than what you read here might have been had Deutschland Radio repeated, as broadcast encore, American in Paris conducted by Metzmacher. I was reminded of hearing this last fall by someone medical here yesterday confiding to me that he had just attended Graf conducting equally familiar Gershwin here.

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