Any critic worthy to wield a poisoned pen must be obsessed these days with drawing up lists: major events and masterworks of the decade, century and millennium now oozing toward their closure. I am not prepared to predict that Benjamin Britten's name will appear on many of these lists, yet hearing that noble Britisher's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings last week at UCLA's Veterans Wadsworth Theater – wondrously set forth by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under Jeffrey Kahane – I had to rack my memory to rediscover many other pieces from our century as intelligently conceived, compiled and constructed as these 20-or-so minutes of intermingled poetry and music. The performance – with Richard Todd's solo horn-of-Elfland, faintly and vigorously blowing, and with tenor James Taylor's (no, not that one) unerring delivery of both Britten's melodic lines and the further melody in the words themselves – couldn't have been better. Our Chamber Orchestra is now, more than ever, a precious part of the musical life of this entire region. (Last week's program, which also included Dvorak's perky little D-minor Serenade and Schubert's “Death and the Maiden” Quartet in Mahler's expansion for string orchestra, was given as well at the Irvine Barclay Theater and the Alex in Glendale.)
The Serenade dates from 1943; Britten and his alter ego Peter Pears had returned to England the year before, after several years of war avoidance in America and – more important – after much time spent in hobnobbing with another Brit escapee, W.H. Auden. In the U.S., Britten had been prolific. Les Illuminations, his 1939 setting (also for singer and string orchestra) of Rimbaud's poetry, stands as an earlier manifestation of his amazing insights into the right music for the right words, and for the beauty of the rise and flow of language – French, in this instance; English, in later works. Lustrous indeed, the musical season that can offer both scores, Les Illuminations sung by Sylvia McNair with the Philharmonic and now this stunning performance of the Serenade.
Its poetry forms a compact anthology: the words of six British poets, from a 15th-century anonymous mystic to the compleat Victorian Alfred Tennyson. The solo horn, onstage at the start, offstage at the end, frames the work in an evocation that startles the hearer into attentiveness. Midway, the horn dances merrily among the wee folk of Tennyson's Elfland and – in the passage that invariably gives me shivers – laments most tragically the “Sickness” of William Blake's Rose. Once again, in the hourlong Spring Symphony of 1949, would Britten honor his lyrical heritage with this kind of variorum collection, and that work – which Andre Previn conducted here some years ago in one of his few distinguished weeks with the Philharmonic – has its marvelous moments. Yet I value the Serenade even higher; it translates beautiful poetry into music of comparable beauty, and its brief time span passes before you notice and leaves you with a sense that you've spent those minutes somewhere beyond rainbows. The Serenade predates the repertory of operas grand and small that form Britten's greatest fame; knowing this earlier work, and the exquisite sensibility that created it, makes the composer's legacy the more miraculous.
The remainder of last week was spent in proximity to D minor, the key of demons and storms and grudging redemptions: the Dvorak and Schubert entries on the LACO program, Dvorak's Seventh Symphony at the Philharmonic. Yet another young Finnish conductor, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, demonstrated some curious arm-choreography, none of which seemed able to rekindle the heat or penetrate the tragedies implicit in the Dvorak symphony – music I cling to as the finest of all late-Romantic symphonies. The orchestral balances were maladjusted; as with another guest conductor the previous week, the strings seemed buried under the blare of brass and winds. My memory book includes a performance of the work led by Carlo Maria Giulini, with the same orchestra in the same hall, which left me catatonic for some ensuing minutes. (There are two Giulini performances on CD, of which the earlier – with the London Philharmonic on Angel-EMI – affects me in the same way.) Saraste's program began interestingly, with Peter Lieberson's Drala, a 17-minute splash of orchestral color, incorporating (as does everyone's music these days!) influences from the far side of the Pacific as well as near. As the son of Goddard, most courageous of all record producers, and the dancer/actress Vera Zorina, Lieberson's bloodlines are in order; so, from this one short work, is his music making. Pianist Andreas Haefliger – also, as it happens, the son of an eminent musician, the tenor Ernst – drew a pall of gray across Beethoven's “Emperor” Concerto, with Saraste and the orchestra apparently in full agreement.
Long before the present era of the authenticity stickler, composers and conductors saw no harm in transcribing established masterworks from one medium to another. The only way that you could hear, say, a Beethoven symphony at home a century ago was to buy a piano-four-hand version. As a student in Vienna I periodically ransacked the backroom at Doblinger's sheet-music store, coming up with all the Beethoven string quartets, dozens of Haydn symphonies and a complete Don Giovanni, all rescored for piano duet. On the other side of the line there was, for example, Felix Weingartner's footloose orchestral transcription of Beethoven's “Hammerklavier” Sonata and, from only yesterday, Arnold Schoenberg's roughshod ride over the Brahms G-minor Piano Quartet and Georg Szell's comparable degradation of Smetana's E-minor String Quartet.
Gustav Mahler figures among the vandals; his orchestration for full string complement of Beethoven's Opus 95 Quartet was broadcast on KUSC-FM sometime last week, which already put me in an adversarial mood toward LACO's Schubert, to which Mahler's miscreance is also attached. Kahane made a few wise alterations; every so often, especially in the sublime set of variations that forms the slow movement, he reduced his forces to the sound of the original quartet. Still, the effect overall was that of hearing one of the greatest of chamber-music masterworks, whose intense dramatic language is the defining force for music in this intimate medium, expanded into something still beautiful in substance but fatally ordinary in sound.
A similar fate awaits Anton Bruckner's one major chamber work, the String Quintet in F minor, which, in Hans Stadlmair's version for full string orchestra, fills a fair portion of Daniel Harding's Music Center debut program on February 25. Can it be that a bright and fast-rising 22-year-old conductor would choose such an encumbered steed as this to storm the boundaries of fame? Whoever made the choice should be tied down and made to listen to it. All three performances.