And Now For Something Completely Different...
Sergei Prokofieff: Overture on Hebrew Themes
Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Johannes Brahms: Symphony # 1
Vadim Repin (violin)
Roberto Abbado (conductor)
Perhaps the most ironic feature of the great rift in the second half of the nineteenth century between the “conservatives” gathered about Brahms and the “progressives” who espoused Wagner and then Bruckner as their standard bearers was that all of them acknowledged their creative genesis in the works of Beethoven. Wagner was the great man’s principal biographer for a time and adopted his dramatic principles wholeheartedly. Bruckner paid homage to the Bonn genius in many of his symphonies, even down to the pattern of their key sequences. Brahms was the master’s most direct descendent, consciously fashioning his great Symphony # 1 on Olympic models created at Heiligenstadt. Gruff and reverential at the same time, Brahms once responded to his dinner host’s praise of a particular wine as the “Brahms of his cellar” by taking a sip and then intoning “you had better bring out your Beethoven”. And yet, it was vitally important for the budding symphonist, no longer a youth but rather a mature composer in his forties, to create his own sonic cartography as a complimentary but individually distinct realm. His most personal imprint in the effort which Hans von Buelow would soon label “Beethoven’s Tenth” was the insertion of a gentle poco allegretto where the beloved immortal would have written a scherzo. This virtually perfect movement of music is Brahms’ gentle assertion that he too was a force with which to be reckoned and, like the cradle song that is the fourth movement of his Requiem, serves as the axis on which his new world turns.
In Roberto Abbado’s hands this movement was gentle indeed, the inner propulsion of the Philadelphia strings in a constantly rocking motion, the statement soft and comforting. In fact, this entire performance was civilly understated, some of the ruffles and flourishes so quiet that they seemed to manifest themselves only in the mind’s ear. The undercurrent of stringed tension was impressive although some of the nobility and granitic grandeur was lost in an homogenized (although gorgeous) orchestral sound. I prefer my Brahms a bit rougher, thank you.
The Overture on Hebrew Themes was written for a chamber combo called Tzimro, which used to play, under Koussevitsky, a crazyquilt of klezmer, Russian pop and classical aboard a cruise ship on the Volga. Its featured performer was the great Simeon Bellison, the dean of the ebonite world in the first half of the 20th century. Bellison went on to first chair clarinet at the NY Phil and met Prokofieff in New York in the late teens. Originally scored for this “folk-rock” sextet, the work loses some of its lilt and charm in the rather flabby version for small orchestra. Add to the mix Abbado’s stiff unfamiliarity with this danceband style (he must not be a very good Mahler conductor) and refusal to loosen up even a little, and you have the stuffed shirt reading of last evening. The shackled solo clarinet had the rhythm wrong right from the start and I blame the maestro completely. This opening begins as an embellished version of the exact same music as that of the main theme of the finale of Shostakovich’s First Symphony (I think that this is just a coincidence and speaks to the two pieces being conceived in the same idiom rather than an homage), but should be played in a much more down and dirty manner. The delicious meanderings of the original were transformed into a rather formal Sunday stroll in a high collar and vest.
The Orientalism of the Prokofieff created a nice link to the least appreciated movement of the concerto. This exotic canzonetta: andante is one of the most interestingly beautiful essays that this composer, known for his melodic pulchritude, ever penned. But it is the fair maiden between two giants and is thus often overlooked. Vadim Repin brought bags of technique to the Tchaikovsky, even if his athletic straining sometimes led to suspect intonation. His is a huge tone, impressively burnished from the outset. I have always thought of the expansive first movement, one of the most beloved in the entire concerto literature, as a full-fledged concerto grosso with woodwind obbligato. Here the incredible string sound of the Philadelphians was first rate and unsurpassable by any ensemble in the world today. As was probably prominent in Tchaikovsky’s inner ear, there was a ravishing contrast between the gritty soloist’s heroic sound and the opulence of his tutti brethren. Abbado basically stayed out of the way and let it happen. I would have wished for Mr. Repin to have been more playful in the final section (this entire concert was foursquarely on the fuddy-duddy side) but still basked appreciatively in his warm mahogany tone.
I have been remiss in not attending a concert at the new home of this magnificent orchestra but have heard quite a few opinions as to its acoustical make-up. Apparently it is still in flux, a computer system able to move the wall panels about to try and warm up the sonic atmosphere. One corollary benefit of the new digs is that these panels block out the transmission of signals to cellular telephones. As last night’s Carnegie performance sadly and intrusively reminded, this technology should be adopted today by every American venue. Now if they could just do something about those people who sit in back of me…
Frederick L. Kirshnit