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 18, 2011

NPR: New York PO. Alan Gilbert. Karita Mattila. Beethoven/Nordic program. 29.1.11

Music of Beethoven split this program with that of Sibelius and Carl Nielsen. Partly to complement how Nielsen's Second Symphony is, Alan Gilbert favored a big-boned, even heroic approach to the somewhat deceptively modest Beethoven Eighth. Though more naturally yielding for its second theme, opening statement of affirmative opening idea got slightly gunned toward invigorating all to follow, strongly driven. Double dotted rhythms anticipating gentler second idea got executed with stalwart rigor, to be consistent with what preceded them. Gilbert also flexibly shaped transitions coming off the second theme, with their rustling tremoli in the strings right underneath, yet followed by crudely hatchet-ed closing idea.

Yielding again as Gilbert was coming off of this, his shaping of the Development section turned out most apt, central fugato buildup thereof both flexibly handled and infused with fine strum und drang toward propelling all forward. Principal clarinet, reflectively on opening theme, opened coda pliant, off hammered close to the recapitulation – toward very confidently concluding the first movement.

What worked well for the first movement worked less well for the remainder of this. Deft ironic wit to the Malzel Allegretto, on which Philharmonic winds were less stiff than the strings, went missing, by dint of mostly strictly marking time from the podium. Heavy, stolid leaning on opening to the Minuet was good, but oddly there was no coming off as line in the first violins carried on just about equally stiff. Excessively underlined accents on timpani and on trumpets, vulgar, layered over the musical rhetoric an extra layer of irony; rustling accompanied well phrased French horn duo for the Trio was more on the right track.
Violin section tremoli to open the rapid finale emerged ragged. Poise got recovered for second theme, as expected, but rhythms for first theme derived subject for fugal writing in the Development turned at once slightly pressed and flaccid. Longer, extended phrases of secondary development Gilbert provided breathing space; working toward nagging impression of a certain lack of charm by and large however was continuing incidence of strain from the violins.

Finnish soprano Karita Mattila then appeared for first of two major selections – the concert aria ‘Ah, perfido’ – in effect study for Leonore in Fidelio – by Beethoven. After abrupt start by Alan Gilbert, Mattila made noble, but curiously arched profile of this piece’s opening recitative – not to mention the expansive, psychologically shifting emotional landscape it covers through just several minutes. Mattila attempted compensating for some hollowness within middle and lower middle range by placing back and darkening color beyond what is natural. Her grasp of emotional terrain that Metastasio’s heroine covers, with all hue and nuance in place, was never in doubt. Maintaining free flow through this, inculcating so very much, was however. Strained high A at crest of ‘Vedro la mia vendetta’ limned fully achieved ferocity thereof to contrast with warmly, firmly achieved legato for closing line of ‘Per lui vivea, voglio morir per lui’ – even with emotion expressed very distraught.

Phrasing continued equally specific through following aria, albeit with much placing back compromising legato and tubular production of engaging reaches into higher register doing the same. Expressive lightening of the tone and of phrasing provided relief – motivated by this singer’s complete musicality and very psychologically worked out response to this aria’s text. Somewhat heavy underlining of slow refrain portion of the cabaletta – all though very sincerely felt – contrasted with awkwardly placed good attempt at lighter tone to take on ascending, descending runs – causing slippery intonation. Combined flexibility and courage to take on this repertoire, combined with complete musical and dramatic grasp of what is at hand helped very well obscure what has always been with Mattila a slightly faulty technique. Even with that less possible now, one could not help but get caught up with Mattila’s thorough engagement here.

Gilbert, warmly supportive of Mattila through the Beethoven, found more common ground with her on selection of three Sibelius songs after the break. Apparently some artistic partnership, revolving around not quite exclusively Nordic repertoire formed during Gilbert’s handful of years with the Stockholm Philharmonic. Enveloped by fine atmospheric sense from Gilbert and the Philharmonic and informed by Mattila’s very intimate feel for the text - poetry by Rydberg (in Swedish) the source - sense of mystery to encompassing Hostkvall (Autumn Evening)’s expansive lines got compromised by vocal problems. This was true through melismatic line to sing of softly falling silvery rain formed from gloomy realms of misty cloudland above (translation: Rosa Newmarch) that Mattila approached by tubular means instead of floating it – up eventually through an unsupported high B natural and slippery intonation overall. This song was composed for the charismatic Finnish diva Aino Ackte.

Coming next was Arioso, also string accompanied, like all three songs here to Swedish text. Pained sense of rapture lost on climactic line to this – Gossens aga ar dass vardag – with its wide (almost Kundry like) jump from a high A down to low D-Sharp drew impassioned feeling from Mattila, though preceded by unvaryingly bearing down an approach to make yielding transition to it effective. The heroine of Arioso unfavorably, naively compares her destiny to that of a wilting flower she observes for her having to concede to family loyalty over desire for the youth at the very center of her life.
Gilbert provided accompaniment sumptuous, but slightly cool, with in mind assisting Mattila toward saving voice. For such thick production, one might even suspect some lack in genuine warmth – also in ability to still convey innocence.

The brief ‘Varen flyktar hastigt’ dealing with fleeting character of a Nordic spring, making it a time for (equally fleeting) love - winsome waltz step to it -freely invited Mattila to lighten up some – opportunity for which she halfway took advantage; transition from minor to major mode Gilbert himself made detached. Fortunately, Mattila recorded all three of these songs at the peak of her powers - with Sakari Oramo (for Virgin Classics).

Alan Gilbert, in having provided us a Beethoven Eighth in bold strokes, even in bringing out something of a driven, hectoring, even quite irascible quality beneath its sanguine surface, was perhaps thinking of the Nielsen to close this program. Neilsen spoke of the different moods or temperaments in human experience in his ‘Four Temperaments’ (Symphony No. 2), of at times their overlapping each other; Nielsen’s music reflects this – least so in the intermezzo second movement devoted to the ‘phlegmatic’ – portion o Gilbert has singled out as particularly charming. Nielsen’s manner of painting in primary colors, for more fully orchestrated passages - in giving the brass much prominence - finds a true advocate in Gilbert.

The strong attitude with which Gilbert opened the first movement certainly made the case. Slight clipping of abrasive accents and cut-offs became suspect. A hard pressed quality of the playing turned things monochromatic against better internally reckoned harmonic changes being made. Supple expanding out of oboe led second theme and of later retransition for less heavily accompanied concertato of winds though got encouraged very well. Strings strained to be heard through crest of their lines through tightly negotiated fugato over loud brass during the Development – equally due to thin unison high scoring for violins as perhaps any indiscretion on Gilbert’s part. While yielding well to this music’s episodic lyricism, the forthright character of the music making here, perhaps slightly peevishly, complemented well how Nielsen himself here depicts a choleric mindset or temperament. Gilbert in taking a forthright tempo prudently withheld excessively pressing the Philharmonic past where they could clearly maintain upholding this music’s demarcations, thus confidently articulate this music with bold strokes.

Following supple trailing off to end the first movement, the indicated phlegmatic ‘waltz’ of the second movement, as perceiving it two-dimensionally, came off well – though slightly devoid of charm or if you will, of Nielsen’s harmonious melos to depict a lighter naïveté. Trio section beginning quite strictly marked eased up well toward achieving better lift and shape, eventually ambling toward return of main section.

Gilbert, to frame starting the Andante, tried plumbing its ‘melancholy’ depths – in how he had strings dig right in, early on. Appoggiatura laden, plaintive reply in oboe, picked up, well characterized by other winds promised good opening out of further rhetoric. The playing here took on a more settled quality, more richly hued, more flexible than heard earlier in either this or the Beethoven. Violins immediately made flexibly singing line out of continuing lines from the woodwinds. Good chamber music was made of principal flute introduced major key episode – continued by Judith LeClair (bassoon) and Philip Myers (horn) before tensions bottle up toward stern reprise of opening this movement. Gilbert’s leaning on thicker scoring to follow reckoned well deeply harmonized chromatic spelling in the brass. Gilbert spoke of an Elgarian quality to the writing here – to perhaps explain his bold strokes to limn its nobility, pathos – deep in twilit colors. Broad expanding out of opening material reprised maintained well, focussed, overall distraught mood to the end.

Except for while intermittently competing with onslaught from the brass, violins displayed good vigor, putting on the ‘sanguine’, to start the finale. Gilbert continued equally at ease with all here as with the Andante. Full chordal interjections, interrupting several lines almost anticipate passage out of the second half of ‘Elegy’ from Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. For two minute interlude to slowly muse, reflect upon more doleful terrain earlier covered, Gilbert, with fine voicing through Philharmonic strings achieved good simplicity. Further enhancing swagger with which the finale opened, the coda, changing up the rhythmic shape of opening material, indeed came off here somewhat Elgarian, but with hearty spirit infusing all, very confident of this music.

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