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Ludwig and Roy

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
10/31/2003 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio Overture, Piano Concerto # 4; Symphony # 6
Andreas Haefliger (piano)
New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel (conductor)

When Luciano Pavarotti appeared last year at the Trump Plaza casino in Atlantic City, it seemed to be the last step down on the stairway to the skids, a final relinquishing of any sense of dignity or artistic integrity, Anthony Quinn donning the Indian headdress and entering the wrestling ring in the last scene of Requiem for a Heavyweight. But amazingly, lucky Luciano is once again straining the boards of the Metropolitan Opera stage this season. The New York audience has a prodigious appetite for kitsch. And it’s not just Mencken’s boob-wha-sie. In the papers, hagiographic articles on such scholarly topics as symbolism in Madonna are intermixed with any considerations of serious music and it has been a number of years now since the Times, the self-appointed arbiter of taste in the city, has, by eliminating the classical music section entirely, equated the relative worth of the million dollar voice of Renee Fleming with that of 50 cent.

New York critics have a sordid history of tacitly encouraging the growth of schlock while adopting a posture of railing against it. The writers were merciless when Dmitri Mitropoulos brought the Philharmonic to the Roxy Theater, a movie palace with its own set of dancing girls, even though the conductor made sure not to lower the performing standards of his ensemble. These same critics just a few seasons later, however, listened the other way when Leonard Bernstein foisted some of the most overtly slick and pop-inspired renditions of great music imaginable on an unsuspecting public, ignoring even the most basic stylistic questions in favor of glossy superficiality and sentimentality (for a good example of this Las Vegas style, try out his collaboration with Isaac Stern in a shamelessly cloying Berg Violin Concerto).

With the possible exception of Mozart, no one has been put through the pop culture wringer more than Ludwig van Beethoven (remember when he was black for a while?). If the modern generation of Americans thinks of Beethoven as anything other than a Saint Bernard, they remember him as a hirsute genius who never had to work at his creation: divine inspiration literally struck him once in a while (the parodies of this Hollywood image by the late John Belushi were priceless). Now in New York we have Lorin Maazel, the new darling of the local press, who are bedazzled by glitz and sequins to the point where they are actually rhapsodizing about the orchestra’s substantial improvement after the lackluster Masur era. Judging from my one night at his recent Beethoven festival, however, Maazel is determined to present this venerable composer as simply a savvy showman, the master of the hollow special effect.

Maazel never met a phrase he didn’t like to alter and the rich landscape of the ”Pastorale” supplied him with large amounts of gold to spin into straw. Employing a pace that can only be described as ridiculous, this conductor, who must always be the center of attention, never allowed the original musical thoughts to develop, forcing his players to simply try and keep up. Of course, Beethoven has had his feet held to the fire in recent years in regard to his tempo markings, but pushing these suggested speeds to the “look at me, mommy” level is just perverse. In the ensemble’s defense, no hundred-piece orchestra could have pulled off this type of sprint without fumbling and their conductor, even though he makes decidedly idiosyncratic demands, seems perfectly willing to forgive half-hearted attempts at realizing them; the real problem was that Beethoven did not even appear to be an entrant in this race. I puzzled for a while as to why anyone would so sacrifice the beauty and power of this symphony on the altar of alacrity until the answer became painfully obvious to all: the quickstep allowed for the insertion of many moments of Maazelian rubato, showy slowings designed to seem, at the established prepubescent level of the evening, profound.

One major miscalculation in this attempt to exhibit the superiority of this particular maestro was the choice of the Fidelio Overture as a curtain raiser. Also spat out at breakneck speed, with its accents swallowed whole, the performance only served to remind of the quality ensemble just next door: Mr. Maazel might want to steer clear of repertoire regularly executed by the Metropolitan Opera in future. Like the lightning storm to follow, this rendition had no electricity.

Krystian Zimerman is an extremely passionate artist, an epic poet of the piano with a flaming intensity. However, Mr. Zimerman called in sick for this performance and we were treated instead to Andreas Haefliger (yes, son of Ernst) who proceeded to turn down the heat to a half boil. This was fortuitous in its own way, as the pianist’s accuracy-challenged slog allowed the orchestra to intone its accompaniment as written, without the fussy insistences of their leader, who seemed uninterested in this performance. In retrospect, this rather dull reading was the highlight of the evening.

By all accounts, Maestro Maazel has his way with this notoriously difficult orchestra by taking it easy on them, providing a kinder, gentler contrast to the demanding Herr Masur. But he should always be wary: if there exists too much of a loving relationship, this tiger might very well end up biting him.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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