On Closer Observation: Janine Jansen at Disney Hall
Not So Stinky
Eduard Hanslick, a.k.a. Beckmesser, cast one of his notorious thunderbolts in the direction of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in 1881 when the ink on its mss. was barely dry, and generations of us hot-pen scriveners have feasted on his words ever since. “It gives us for the first time the hideous notion,” Hanslick wrote, “that there can be music that stinks in the ear.” Well, Herr Hanslick was 53 when he delivered that monumental dictum; since I am no longer that, it may be the right time to re-examine those words in the light of my own experiences with the work in question, the most recent of which was the exhilarating, elegant and altogether winning version of it delivered at Disney Hall just a few nights ago by an admirable Dutch musician named Janine Jansen. I have lived through tortured performances by aging virtuosos — Bronislaw Huberman, for one, who lopped a whole five minutes from the last movement (it didn’t help) — and breathtaking, showoff affairs by the likes of Heifetz, who certainly supported the Hanslick view of the piece. Ms. Jansen’s performance, beautifully echoed by her countryman Edo de Waart and the Philharmonic, was neither of the above; it was swift without being the least heartless, lyrical without schmaltz (or whatever they call it in Amsterdam) and utterly beautiful. It set me on a whole new path of thinking about the piece, which is what a great performance should do.
I wish I could say the same about Schumann’s Third (“Rhenish”) Symphony, which filled out the program — the way Styrofoam fills out a package. I have no Hanslick quotation for this sorry smudge of a work, although this from a British paper of 1856 — “trivial in idea and poor in resource” — will do. There are nice sounds here: horns and winds in E flat, their most congenial key, but no rhythms or motion to send them along. The other Schumann symphonies conquer this motion problem with prettier tunes; this one starts out as a sad and noble failure and remains that way.
Ms. Jansen returned 24 hours later, on a Philharmonic “Chamber Music Society” night, with five colleagues, in an even more daunting task — to try to turn a real clunk from Tchaikovsky’s pen, the string sextet called Souvenir de Florence (12 years later than the Concerto and nowhere near as rewarding), into half an evening’s worth of happy listening. It didn’t work; whatever delight Tchaikovsky may have gleaned from his Italian journeys did not translate into anything nearly as lively as his Italian Caprice of many years previous. All that saved this gloomy, meandering work, in fact, was its superiority to its program mate, the wretchedly thick and dreary B-flat String Sextet by Johannes Brahms. Where was Herr Hanslick when we needed him?
Amen to That
My deep-purple words written under the spell of Olivier Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen in our last week’s visit were written under the spell of music of similar color at the last “Piano Spheres” concert; those who have teased me about them, and were not at the concert, have only themselves to blame. Beyond their just deserts, they have been accorded a reprieve, since that astonishing work formed the major substance of last weekend’s “Jacaranda” concert “at the edge of Santa Monica,” and if you missed it this time, it’s there on a New Albion disc by the same performers, the piano duo known as Double Edge. With honest respect to Joanne and Mark at “Piano Spheres” — wonderful, brave players — the Double Edge performance, on disc and at the First Presbyterian Church last Saturday, ranks among my sublime experiences. Edmund Niemann and Nurit Tilles formed Double Edge in 1978. They have also played with Steve Reich’s Musicians almost since the beginning of his time. It tells you the stature of the Jacaranda people that they brought Double Edge out here for their own Messiaen celebration, and also for a major William Bolcom work.
Bolcom’s 1971 Frescoes is, like most of his best works, a “jumble of half-remembrances” that poke at you delightfully — this time from an assortment of keyboards, in other works a variorum of other kinds of etceteras. In a sense, the work set the tone for the entire program, which meandered agreeably past a couple of shorter Messiaen works — the evocative horn call from Canyons to the Stars and an early set of variations that had the feature, unique for Messiaen, of letting us know at every moment exactly where we were in the music. Once again, the “Amen” Visions projected no such message, however. I cannot yet reach ground zero in its vastness; someday I will.
After all those years of solitary Saturdays by the radio, suddenly the Metropolitan Opera airings have become public experiences, to common delight. People meet in the theaters where these new telecasts are shown, and talk over the previous week’s production. It’s only logical, therefore, that these events have now moved into the marketplace, all the more so since the quality of the projections and the sound is, or can be, so much better than a peanut-gallery seat at a lot of live opera hereabouts.
I saw the last two productions: Peter Grimes and Tristan und Isolde. The Grimes was a new production by John Doyle, who did the L.A. Opera’s Mahagonny and Broadway’s Sweeney Todd and Company. Those, I thought, were mostly fine; the Grimes completely wrong. Instead of the expanse of British fishing village extending toward sunrise, we got a flat, vertical wall up front pierced with windows and doorways — Suffolk à la Louise Nevelson, betrayed by Britten’s horizontal expanse of music. There were great performances, by Anthony Dean Griffey and Patricia Racette and by the soaring, murderous orchestra under Donald Runnicles. After the devastating first-act curtain — “HOME, you call that a HOME???” — a squeaky-voiced soprano broke the spell to lead us on a backstage tour.
Deborah Voigt was the Isolde, as expected. The Tristan was the handsome and clear-voiced Robert Dean Smith, the last of four tenors to outlive a sad succession of illnesses and accidents (one of them hilariously caught on film) that had plagued the Met over the week, and he was perfectly fine — better by far than our John Treleaven. Jürgen Rose’s sets and costumes were full of Eurotrash geometrics and shifts of focus; give me David Hockney any day. But oh, that stupendous Met Opera Orchestra!