If you’re as old as I am, you can remember a time when Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons was one of music’s unknown quantities. My Gramophone Shop Encyclopedia from 1948 — the year the long-playing disc hit the market — doesn’t list a single authentic recording. By 1952 there were two — an honorable version with the violinist Louis Kaufman as soloist and a dishonorable one juiced up in high romantic fashion by Bernardino Molinari. My latest Schwann lists 80, including one on a disc titled Build Your Baby’s Brain and another whose soloists include “The Winter Trombone.” These days you can fill a hall by scheduling The Four Seasons; last week’s two performances at the Hollywood Bowl drew what looked to me like the biggest crowds of any “classical” night this season. Perhaps the additional presence on the program of Mark O’Connor’s The American Seasons helped draw the crowds, but I’d like to credit Los Angeles audiences with better taste than that.
JoAnn Falletta conducted, remembered more or less fondly from her days as head of the Long Beach Symphony, currently leading the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra; last New Year’s Day she led the same Vivaldi/O’Connor double bill on PBS. She gets around, but she didn’t get very far around Vivaldi’s picturesque fantasies on this occasion. The four violin soloists, all Los Angeles Philharmonic members — Michele Bovyer, Akiko Tarumoto, Stacy Wetzel and Jonathan Wei — had played the work at the Music Center under Miguel Harth-Bedoya last November, and had been encouraged by the conductor to approach the performance with four different takes on proper baroque style. I remember with particular pleasure how Wei turned the final section into a lively winter carnival. Apparently Falletta had no such intent; everything about her performance was clean, correct and little more. You could march to it, perhaps, but never dance.
Credit Mark O’Connor with the business sense to compose a complementary work to the Vivaldi: the same half-a-program length and — except for guitar replacing harpsichord — the same scoring. Of musical sense in his work I detected somewhat less. O’Connor has made a name in a kind of thinking person’s crossover; Yo-Yo Ma and Richard Stoltzman are among his companions, and they draw upon sources rooted in world lore: a worldwide indigenous language that extends from the Silk Road to Route 66. O’Connor composes a synthesized Americana; it sounds like old-timey fiddle tunes prettied up with sophisticated harmonies and with some attempt to draw them out into a serious structure. It is in that last regard that he fails — in this new American Seasons and in other works on disc, the “Fiddle Concerto” and a few chamber works. As a violinist he manages another synthesis; his stylistic swings from Corelli to country were smooth, if you like that kind of thing; to me they were sickening.
Any piece of music that earns my respect — a large number, I hasten to assure you — begins with a secret message that tells me what I need to know about shape, length and proportion. Each of the four concertos in Vivaldi’s Seasons accomplishes this most eloquently, heralding not an hour’s length of the same thing, but four 15-minute varied episodes on a shapely landscape. The clouds out of which Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony takes shape tell us that the ensuing structure will be vast; the same revelatory power holds for any great work you can name. The failure in O’Connor’s music the other night was exactly that, a lack of a thread that made me want to anticipate the next thing, the inability of any moment to explain why it’s there and how it got there. Music that cannot explain itself makes me profoundly uncomfortable, and — on Tuesday of last week — it got me homeward bound ahead of time.
Dealing with long pieces of music that have the power to explain themselves leads me logically to Franz Schubert and his piano sonatas — of which pickings were also slim back in the 78-rpm prehistory; in my latest Schwann they fill four columns of very small print. That hasn’t deterred EMI from launching a new series, nor should it. The pianist is the exceptional young Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes, and his two discs so far have further value in that tenor Ian Bostridge fills in the extra space with Schubert songs, with Andsnes at the piano.
The latest disc offers the D-major Sonata of 1825, and Bostridge’s nine songs come from around that time; it was also the time, three years before his death, when Schubert began work on the “Great” C-major Symphony. The D-major is the first of the five final sonatas, all of them large-scale and personal works. Its origins are fascinating to speculate on. He is obviously under the spell of Beethoven’s vast “Hammerklavier” Sonata, with its huge handfuls of clangorous chords smashed up against one another, and its dizzy plunges into foreign keys. All this happens in the first movement, mostly at breathtaking speed. The slow movement is different, a fond journey through paradise, its melodies shy and fragmented at first, gradually merging, the junctures accomplished with single soft harmonies for which there are no proper words. The Scherzo starts off like a three-legged clog dance, but the middle section — when played with the serenity that Andsnes commands here — again elicits shivers. The finale is all sunshine and meadows, the evocation of a place and its colors that could teach Mark O’Connor a thing or two about simple gifts.
Andsnes is a marvelous musician; if his slow movement doesn’t yet have the eloquence that, in Mitsuko Uchida’s performance, can melt steel, his own brand of steel in the other movements has a glint that I find irresistible. And then there is Bostridge, with his own poet’s imagination for word-color and word-emotion, and the clear, unforced beauty of his tone; you have to believe that this was the sound that rang in Schubert’s own soul as he put pen to these miraculous outpourings. Andsnes’ collaboration is on a level for which mere “accompanist” will not do. At this writing my ears resound to their partnership on “Auf der Bruck,” with its crashing dissonances in the pianist’s left hand and the singer’s intoxicated exhilaration at his vision of the mountainous landscape that only music can properly describe.