Lesser Is Better

Sheila Rock

Berlin’s Simon Rattle

Wendy Lesser is the founder and editor of The Threepenny Review, a quarterly collection of thinking and, therefore, writing that I find indispensable. I don’t know her musical credentials, but her piece in the latest issue, on Simon Rattle — his Mahler performances with the Berlin Philharmonic, his masterly putdowns of unruly New York audiences, his rehearsals and, in general, the marvelous musician that he has become — is a splendid read. In this age of the blog, when anyone with a computer can self-identify as an authority in any field of choice, it’s heartening to come across this wonderfully expressed interaction between a person of broad intelligence and music with the greatest power to stir and to terrify of any I know — and I mean the Ninth Symphony by Mahler.

Not very much of this power is in any way recordable; you have to be there — to experience, for example, the way a dedicated musical leader can hold an audience in stunned silence at the end as Mahler, in the person of a solo cello, guides us toward oblivion. But Rattle’s performance, on a two-disc EMI set, is marvelously detailed and spirited, and it’s up to you to provide the setting: headphones late at night, perhaps, cat close at hand. It is Rattle and his orchestra, almost single-handed so to speak, who are keeping alive a recording industry devoted to superb new versions of orchestral repertory played by major performing forces on discs you can actually buy (somewhere, at least, if only down dark alleys). More power to them.


Out of the gathering of large masterworks from Beethoven’s late-life onrush — the quartets, the Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis and the piano sonatas — one work seems to tower above the rest in terms of sheer emotional content and the composer’s struggle to reach out beyond the boundaries of his own artistic conscience. That work is the A-minor String Quartet (Op. 132), which the Calder Quartet grappled with manfully, and came close to conquering, before a fair-sized crowd at Zipper Hall last weekend. To me, this is the work that stands out in Beethoven’s legacy, as Mahler’s Ninth stands out in his. The order of events may be different. Beethoven ends on a note of diffident triumph; his grotesqueries have come earlier. But both works move to a point where the curtain is drawn back and the star-filled firmament is revealed. The young Calders haven’t been playing this music for long, and they will need to firm up their conquest in the years to come, but they played Beethoven’s slow movement, his “Hymn of Thanksgiving,” with just the right balance of ecstasy and melancholy, and I was able to lose myself in this sublime music, as required.

Earlier they performed some Mendelssohn, a capriccio and a quartet, both in A minor, as is the Beethoven. Classical-era composers, the generation before Mendelssohn, tended to steer clear of that key; something about it seems cold and menacing. There are no Haydn or Mozart quartets or symphonies in A minor, only this one quartet by Beethoven and a couple of his early violin sonatas. Mozart sets the pivotal scene in The Magic Flute, when Tamino learns that Sarastro is a good guy, not a villain, in A minor; other than that, there are an early A-minor piano sonata and a late A-minor rondo for piano, the latter chromatic and harmonically distraught. But these pieces of Mendelssohn have nothing to do with the classical A minor. They are flip, parlor pieces, almost insulting to their key, like supermarket marmalade spread on fine pastry.

Good-manners note: Wendy Lesser might be impressed by the way the Calders circumvent the danger of applause between movements, even with a mostly young audience, which this one was. It’s the trick of holding the bows aloft for a few extra seconds at music’s end, which nicely defuses the impulse to interrupt the flow. It worked, very nicely.

Leanness Envy

It was all-French at the Philharmonic, from the orchestra’s assistant conductor Lionel Bringuier’s first major triumph on the podium up front to the insidious rattle of Francis Poulenc’s castanets against the back wall. Bringuier looks wonderful in action, but can any body that slender really support life? His beat is modest, its power — to unleash the vast torrents of sound, within Disney’s willing acoustic framework — apparently endless. Ravel framed the program: the elegance of Le Tombeau de Couperin at the start — with the solo oboe of Ariana Ghez somewhere up among the galaxies — and a devastating La Valse at the end. That guy can certainly manage an orchestra: Bringuier, I mean; Ravel too.

I love Poulenc’s Two-Piano Concerto, perhaps more than I should. It hands out the most gorgeous melodies, some that Mozart, or at least Mendelssohn, would willingly acknowledge, and then trashes them forthwith under a barrage of orchestral roogie-roogie including the aforementioned castanets. The level of bad taste borders on the exquisite; I could not defend a note of this infectious, high-spirited delirium, nor could I sacrifice a single minute of its mere 20. Frank Braley and Eric le Sage were the fine soloists.

Albert Roussel’s relatively unknown Third Symphony, composed in 1930 on a commission from Serge Koussevitzky, should have been the program’s most substantial stuff, or so I thought from memories of previous hearings. Not so, alas; of all the music this marvelous evening, this protracted attempt at laying a wash of modernistic dissonance over the outlines of a classical symphony ended up neither modernistic nor classical but merely very tired. An overlay of rather ordinary percussion, meant, I am sure, to move the music forward, never did. “Undeserved” and “obscurity” don’t always go together.

Obiter dictum: The L.A. Opera’s opening-night Otello, which I reviewed, had required a substitute Desdemona; Chilean soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, scheduled for the role, was ill. She returned later in the run, and — at the urging of my friends “Trader” Joe Coulombe and Alice, this city’s most ardent operaphiles — I saw her last Sunday, the final performance. Bless Joe, bless Alice, and bless Cristina, lithe and beautiful, wonderfully responsive in voice and body to the inner life in this most harrowing of all of Verdi’s tragic roles. This was, indeed, the superbly focused Otello I had missed the first time around. A week with Otello and Opus 132 makes this a pretty good job in a pretty good town.

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