Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony is so seldom played that every new hearing becomes a trove of rediscovered delights; so was it with the Philharmonic last week. The orchestra, just back from its weeklong conquest of Cologne (read the reviews if you doubt this), might have been entitled to some jet lag; perhaps it was the luxury of Beethoven’s orchestral language, and the enlivening guest leadership of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, that forestalled this consequence.
The personality of Beethoven’s orchestral sonority per se is not often dealt with; I put forward the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony as containing the most seductive sounds in his entire legacy. They consist in the main of conversation among the winds, a solo clarinet (Michele Zukovsky’s the other night, pure rapture) answered by a somewhat more serious bassoon, a horn gently trying to change the subject, strings and even the timpani as concerned onlookers. The miracle — and I use this word advisedly — is compounded when you realize that this music dates from a time when Beethoven’s oncoming deafness had already begun its inroads. There is a small body of moments in Beethoven’s music, from around the time of this Fourth Symphony (Opus 60), that give off this particular kind of ecstasy; you shiver when you hear them, or should at any rate. I tend to grow weak-kneed, for example, during the slow movements of the first and second “Razumovsky” string quartets (Opus 59); the rhapsodic G-minor episode that intrudes upon the blandness in the first movement of the Violin Concerto (Opus 61) affects me the same.
There are other remarkable moments in the Fourth. Just the beginning, for example, tries out an effect new in Beethoven’s usage, but one he will employ again in other contexts later on: the notion of the music emerging out of a cloudy nowhere, one note at a time, with empty space in between, and then suddenly getting down to business with a mighty whoosh. (Twenty years later he will pull the same trick in the Ninth Symphony, and every good German composer — and some bad — from then on will follow that lead.) What is interesting, and delightful, in the Fourth is the way Beethoven, later on in the first movement, repeats that whole coming-from-nowhere process, much condensed but just as surprising the second time around.
The performance under Frühbeck was strong, beautifully detailed, respectful of Beethoven’s stipulated repeats and respectful, too, of the winged spirits that make of the final movement an entire wondrous library of joke books. The rest of the program had to be downhill; the second of Prokofiev’s two violin concertos is a rather drab business under any circumstances, although Alexander Treger dealt bravely with its convoluted patterns. Even so, I hadn’t expected to enjoy the two suites of Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat music that ended the program; instead, I kept wishing it wouldn’t end. In a lifetime of pop-concert and Hollywood Bowl performances, I have apparently missed the sizzling, diamond-hard orchestral language of the piece and, of course, the gorgeous, insinuating curvature of its rhythmic patterns. It doesn’t always follow that Spanish conductors can make this music work; ask any San Franciscan who remembers Enrique Jordá. But Frühbeck, in what couldn’t have been many days’ work after the European jaunt, got the Philharmonic to master his own accents to a remarkable degree. The sound of that music, in that hall, was something to roll around on your happiest receptors for hours afterward.
The death of Carlos Kleiber last year has activated the consciences of the media, leading to the issue or reissue of most of his recorded performances. Every one of these is essential not only for the strength of the insights that he brought to his chosen (if limited) repertory, but also for the amount of the man himself, the musician infused by music and by the act of making music, that both microphone and camera have been able to capture. You start with the two videos — on Sony and on Deutsche Grammophon — of the New Year’s Day concerts he led at Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal in 1989 and 1992. You are first held spellbound by the sheer gorgeousness of the room itself, the gold of its décor, then of the music that fills it — Vienna’s golden treasury of waltzes and the like — and by the smiling, delighted companionship of the man who is making it happen. There is a lot of folderol around about how musicians make music: about God moving the baton, or Beethoven coursing through the veins. The remarkable thing about watching Kleiber is the sense of easy companionship between him and the task at hand. The remarkable thing about listening to Kleiber is how much of this sense comes through.
The reissues include a CD on Deutsche Grammophon of Schubert’s early Third Symphony and the “Unfinished” in a performance that may leave you paralyzed for some ensuing minutes. The DVDs include Beethoven symphonies — the Fourth and Seventh — and a Mozart “Linz” Symphony so immediate that you fancy yourself onstage, feeling the phrases as they take shape. You’re also onstage, or so you feel yourself, in a Vienna performance of Die Fledermaus, supremely funny and supremely wise. There should also be a Rosenkavalier one of these days, if not already; he recorded it twice, and both versions were released on laserdisc. That was the only opera I saw him conduct in person. Lucky me.
Most remarkable among the Kleiber releases, however, on TDK, is a Carmen from the Vienna State Opera, never before released, with — get this — Elena Obraztsova as Carmen and Plácido Domingo as José, designed and directed by Franco Zeffirelli. The date: December 9, 1978. Above everything else — and “everything else” in this case includes Zeffirelli’s 500 co-workers and eight horses — this is the most nearly complete imprint of a Kleiber performance. The exigencies of 1978 TV production keep him visible for large time segments: molding drumbeats with his whole body, string passages with perhaps 40 fingers in the air, settling back to allow his orchestra — the Vienna Philharmonic, after all — to do what it knows to do. Domingo is youthful, ardent, and takes the B flat in the “Flower Song,” alas, at full volume; Obraztsova is coarser at times than I would have expected; Yuri Mazurok, the Escamillo, is splendidly stentorian. Zeffirelli’s production, need I add, abounds with pretty chorus boys out front; his Lillas Pastia Tavern might be the Grand Canyon. The bad version of Carmen is used, with sung dialogue and not a line left out. At Domingo’s L.A. Opera, at least, they cut.