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, August 19, 2010

BBC Proms 2010: Prom 34. Triumphant adieu to DSO Berlin for Ingo Metzmacher at Proms. Leonidas Kavakos. 10.08.10.

Certainly hallmark from Ingo Metzmacher lately has been his interpretation of the Mahler Seventh Symphony. Here we could hear it again from very different sonic perspective than from the very warmly reverberant Muiskverein Wien last spring. Differences between the two, suitably accommodating both halls, were subtle. Metzmacher too it seems, can sometimes be the least of anybody satisfied with his own results. With music so well-nigh perfect as the Seventh, perfection in how to approach it is and will always remain slightly elusive; there is the finale deemed so problematic – often inexcusably taken for granted. Metzmacher achieved still greater refinement with the Seventh in London – some of it taken slightly quicker than before.

It was a natural last March to capitalize upon the Musikverein’s warm acoustics as did DSO Berlin. Here one picked up Mahler from a more linear perspective. With how the Mahler played in Vienna, there was same goal in mind. In making overt the darker undercurrents in the Seventh, as more overtly, less subtly happened in Vienna, Metzmacher’s interpretation still distinguished itself from that of Michael Gielen. Whether heard in Freiburg, Berlin or L.A. Gielen’s interpretation ranks prominent to many Mahlerians. Placing music on the first half of this program of sunnier quality, greater kaleidoscopic variety than the Hartmann Kavakos played in Vienna also may have contributed to what subtle transformations occurred here for the Mahler.

Heard from London was drier, more stringent string section engagement of their grizzly sonorities, edge to figuration to start the first movement - together with still distraught tenor horn solo. Perception of being out over deep waters still registered, even if provided warmer resonance in which to wallow last March. Rhythmic markings in Vienna to begin the Exposition were more forthright, but very well marked here too. Noticeable improvement in London over Vienna was also most supple handling of the second theme, still with slight slow-down, yield into it, but played here on purpose as though to float a little more above harmonic underpinnings beneath - and with improved rubato now, to run Gielen very close. Arched leaps for high dissonances in the violins became more acerbic, making slight jerk back into main tempo more sharply characterized.

Metzmacher handled awkward transitions working their way into pastoral episode less emphatically - with inner lines better helping carry all forward. Spacing was slightly more distinct for the pastoral episode, approached again reticently, but with Wei Lu making starker contrast of his solo midway through it here. The ‘Sehr breit’ reprise of the second theme, so undercut by others by making too much retard on the second theme earlier, here in the cavernous space of Albert Hall floated more aloft in the violins, above ultimately better marked sonorities (seemingly) farther beneath. Metzmacher then handled remaining transition into the Recapitulation, avoiding better the trap with violins entering high to respond to extended brass cadence - that never achieves recovery of main tempo quickly enough – more distinctively now, with terracing of jagged fanfare stretto into the Recapitulation now more acutely realized – where ‘Leidenschaftlich’ indeed is marked. Neurotic current carried through inner voices toward making sharply coherent all upcoming awkward transitions, through finally very supple handling of recapitulation of the second theme, and searing, well marked sinister, (mock-) heroic ending to now a most fully realized first movement.

Sinister accents opening first Nachtmusik got less underlined toward subtler building of more suggestive feel for what may lurk beneath – and with less arched buildup toward long, freely rapid descending scale into horns here most warmly intoning principal march theme for this movement. First episode, characterization of what underpins it quite pungent before, was more subtly flowing over all that goes ’bump’ underneath. Feel for empty space all about with horn calls heard as from afar achieved better simplicity this time. Very stark pointing of trills in lower woodwinds was indicative, flagship for more lightly achieved, more flowing elfin feeling for the entire serenade – at surface.

Less of early unmarked slowdown was made of firm bass clarinet underlined segue into spectral, plaintive Wunderhorn second trio section. Klezmer feel for continuing march and forthrightly affirmative, very stridently woodwinds’ decorated reprise of the main march idea here helped confidently traverse all of the rest. More spectral and widely spaced was the brief episode answering klezmer cortege announced on light violin and harp tremolo on high B natural and then later on final concertato of winds spinning all off. All contrasts here got as incisively marked as before, where what fuss did occur was great fun; all became subtler, thus still more sinister in London.

At surface, with drier resonance, ‘Schattenhaft’ may have overtly spooked less here than in Vienna, but through this and the second and warmer Nachtmusik was at last what just got mostly achieved before. What must have impressed Schoenberg, even including the finale - carrying same trait forward - was the great achievement of linear counterpoint on Mahler’s part, where you have so many lines course through both clear texture, implicit overtones as though all free of harmonic moorings underneath. The art of making art out of the finale to the Seventh lies precisely therein. Icy shiver through the Scherzo contrasted then so well with wafting breezes through Nachtmusik II, the latter in reply to drowsy malaise on snatch of Traumerei as captured by Wei Lu, with no effort to underline anything. If anything, the Scherzo here brought with it a greater lingering effect on the psyche – as not quite fully been able to come to grips with which one has been struck until little stretch afterwards; stronger underpinning before of erratic rhythms produced oddball the more visceral effect.

Guitar and mandolin, with piquant irony, answered equally so by winds, tuned and strummed away disingenuously unaware of better places to land harmonically than Mahler has them. Singing ardor for Schumann-esque trio was still most supple, within pace slightly breezier for Nachtmusik II than before. Caught most ideally was the slight shudder, inhalations right at its conclusion – answered by long ardent exhaling line in low register clarinet – all as out of ‘Ich atmet einen Linden duft.’ There was even perhaps hint of Gallic feel – i.e. the extra airiness of texture for the cello/horn led middle section and contrast of pointed acrid winds therein - for Nachtmusik II’s neo-classicism that made so elaborate such fully infiltrated detachment and linear freedom here.

Rondo-finale merrily jostled forth, this Seventh again at slightly quicker clip than when played in Vienna. Now both Gielen and Metzmacher have made the argument that this rondo is no way inferior to other Mahler. It is just in being able to hear all of it that this is so. Hubbub, some blur thereof emerged in full relief, but with practically all voices, harmonic spellings, however awkward or eccentric, speaking through it all. Half ironic framing of chorale entrances by brass, calliope effects, operetta references and other parody resounded forth in full relief, with many lines running through it all - to be as sophisticated at play as informs the rondo-burleske in the Ninth Symphony.

First-movement caravan episode - less overt a shudder to it in London than in Vienna – became eerier for sensation of all interweaving lines through all preceding it arriving at such an encounter. For as notably revelatory a Seventh this was, the interconnected feel overall without any smoothing out was most unique. Remarkable was the greater sense
of play, frivolity with it here, with pointing of humor therein at one point – high and dry solo flute making widely spaced cadence to match Gielen – but truly risible now added a most besotted slurp of portamento up from violins during final ‘operetta’ episode. Lightly inebriated pointing within the brass right before ‘the caravan’ episode also caught one unawares. Most grotesque of all was this being Metzmacher’s final concert as in charge of DSO Berlin. There’s now one more story to tell from this rowdy finale bringing all to a close more than Mahler might yet have reckoned.

Drier acoustic of the more reticent Royal Albert Hall made delicate to more fleshed out Mahlerian and Schrekerian textures sound forth from DSO Berlin - as more illuminated from within - than at Musikverein or Kurhaus (Wiesbaden). Metzmacher made his debut conducting opera with Der Ferne Klang in 1988 (Brussels); it may have helped as well to conduct the Nachtstuck here, in wake of recent Zurich run with the complete opera – employing lyric voices for Fritz and Grete. It is hard to grasp how this music can achieve at once the most aesthetically true and pleasing results - as such avoiding trap of acoustical hedonism to which Michael Gielen has made reference.

Some greater repose at this music’s surface got achieved here, prevailed better than at Wiesbaden. Wafting sense of reverie through much arabesque, development thereof and interplay with repeat and development of the piece’s opening cortege motif for got provided better relief here. Such made jagged, sudden shifts and turns, for remote tonal centers, in such a way to intrude upon the psyche, more unsettling, disturbing this time internally or subconsciously – as most likely intended. Logic of what decisive turns occur then would lodge in memory as immersed in illogic – as even opportunity to reflect upon the character of the turns that take place in the opera’s narrative. Such notion reflects discourse less along lines of traditional morality and logic than along such to reflect varied mental states. Rationale for my calling Schreker impressionist may be loosely corroborated with Alan Lessem’s comments in his book on Schoenberg music and text (UMI Rsch Press 1973, pp. 71-72) on recurrent timbres reflecting new sensations, even perhaps a new spirituality - moreover suspending tonality - being that out of which is built formal cohesion, independent of motivic or thematic content.

The trick in interpreting the music of Schreker (and of Korngold) is being able to separate out emphasis on such sonorities, truly novel relationships between them from cliché, to which Schreker’s music can still easily succumb. The oxymoron is that in making too harsh or jagged or a clash where sonorities intersect or interlock will inadvertently lead one’s ear to naturally, devoid of any concept of spirituality, rely on its more suave harmonies, cadences, where Schreker allows a certain element of cliché – situation made worse by so much music since cheaply derivative of what have become very time-worn devices or crutches one finds therein. This latest take on Nachtstuck, following strong guidelines instead, made one at last yearn to hear more.

Oasis between tumult of the Schreker and Mahler here was the Violin Concerto of Eric Korngold, written post-war well after the traumatic (initial) phase of expressionism, even as persisted between world wars, was over. Most characteristic here was, within precisely tuned shaping thereof, strong emphasis on both the modernism and angularity of solo lines on part of Leonidas Kavakos. Such playing, without layering on any extra sentimentality, let in more probing air of nostalgia than is clichéd norm. Kavakos handled very masterfully the negotiation of runs in melodically awkward figuration, even through the double-stopping and then free swagger with which the ‘concerto’ finale come across. Kavakos and Metzmacher made well varied between them the numerous repeats of swaggering first theme of the finale animatedly with vigor. Kavakos’s spinning off arpeggios, decorated by so many dissonant or off-chord chord exotic intervals from main idea, was spectacular.

Most distinctive was the echt-Vienniese ardor with which so many elaborately rhapsodic lines were filled, from initial reach through wide span for eventual major seventh to help open the first movement. All got achieved by other means than infusion of artificial sweetener to bring out the ache in the sound, even an intermittent harshness of tone. One can achieve even a bitter taste with such nostalgia – here the sense of world lost far beyond what can ever be recovered, personal loss felt as well for home as it was before exile, without tastelessly going about it. Kavakos and Ingo Metzmacher both proved this as impetus for the lavish care they bestowed upon Korngold’s music here.

This concerto has so frequently become star vehicle for generous technical display – with orchestral accompaniment, so often reckoned pointlessly ornate, elaborate. Metzmacher proved ‘gold standard’ in picking up the Hollywood cliché, especially in the finale, with its ‘cowboy’ swagger - especially when reaching the horns - glittering strings above - in grand style on big sky, ‘big country’ theme that sends all the music wide-screen for good moment or two. Such was followed by fine drop-off highlighted by half-harmonics limned consequent by Kavakos, to riveting effect. Interplay between low trilling clarinet generated light obbligato in high winds to wide dissonant interval figuration in Kavakos’s part scintillated halfway through first section of the opening Moderato. Change from austerely realized long held trilled C-sharp following elaborate cadenza, to very bright clearing of the air for D Major opening to Recapitulation was acute – in part for backing off from softening up change occurring there.

The Andante opened atmospheric, toward preparing sweetly sung entrance by Kavakos. Quite pointillist, widely varied figuration limned exotically colored E Major ‘nocturne’ - coming off somber pause midway through, having all take on a neurotic tinge or edge underneath. Follow-through thereof of flighty alternation of caprice and deep yearning from Kavakos remained forefront. He then achieved over shimmer in vibraphone elegaically restful reprise of the main theme – to develop into making exotic, drug-induced his closing lines. All at high level of simplicity got cosseted by evocative spelling of so much from DSO Berlin forces right behind, making things seem all ready for the Mahler – yet with ‘cowboy’ rondo ahead instead.

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