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The Nature of Incomplete

New York
Carnegie Hall
03/03/2001 -  03/04/01
Richard Wagner: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 9
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 3

Violeta Urmana (mezzo)
Women of the New York Choral Artists
American Boychoir
Vienna Philharmonic
Pierre Boulez (conductor)

Aesthetes who make the pilgrimage to the Accademia in Florence to view Michelangelo’s David are treated to a profound surprise along the way. In the anteroom are statues that appear to have been abandoned by Buonarroti during the course of their creation. The large, muscular figures strain mightily against the rectangular blocks of marble, their wretched expressions frozen with the effort of doomed escape. The contrast between the oval of the finished detail and the square of the original fruit of the quarry is unforgettable and, since these figures were meant to be viewed head on, their visages, awash in human agony, seem much more transporting than their more illustrious neighbor’s in the main rotunda. At least one school of art history maintains that these pieces are actually finished works and, in my naivete, my viewing of them forces me to concur. It is impossible to imagine even so a great a genius being able to improve upon what remains extant. In music, there are several examples of this phenomenon, the quotation marks surrounding the appellation ”Unfinished” in the Schubert the most apt in history. For Anton Bruckner, that most spiritual and humble of all composers, the idea of approaching the infinite was not only daunting but inexpressible. It would have been antithetical to all of his ingrained beliefs to fashion a work which described the culmination of his ultimate journey. Upon really examining the creed which defined his life, it becomes self-evident that his last symphonic statement would have to be left a fragment. Like Martinelli not singing the last “bacio” in Otello, it is the final silence itself which is the heart of the music’s eloquence.

The Vienna Philharmonic is a classic example of an orchestra which sounds much better on CD than they do in actual live performance. For many years now they have existed without a music director, preferring instead a parade of guest conductors chosen by the players themselves. This lack of a guiding hand has begun to take its toll. They are no longer their fathers’ orchestra, an image which may be taken literally, as their policy of only hiring sons and nephews of orchestra members, with its corollary exclusion of foreigners and women, can be praised as safeguarding tradition. However, one of their previous music directors, Gustav Mahler, used to say that “tradition is only the memory of the last bad performance”, and lately the ensemble is showing some of the more deleterious effects of excessive inbreeding.

Add to the mix the leadership of the frigid Pierre Boulez and you create a recipe for disaster. Although the choice of a piece of mature Wagner was an inspired one as a curtain raiser for Bruckner (with the added merit of allowing the latecomers to file in without disturbing the rest of us during the main course), the performance left much to be desired. I have heard the VPO live recently, so I am over the shock of their thin sound, the strings brittle and cold, the winds disjointed and sloppy. What surprised me though was the imbalance allowed by Boulez, that infamous tritone made even more dissonant than the composer would have ever dreamed, the normally gorgeous main theme of the Liebestod so out of kilter that the dominant instruments were the shrill flutes and penny-whistlelike piccolo, the net effect one not of inspiration but rather irritation. The couple sitting next to me, who must have paid well over 200 dollars for their seats (the Vienna Phil is the most desired ticket in town), got up and left after only ten minutes of the proceedings. I hope that they have an opportunity to read a review of the Bruckner so that they can feel that they were perhaps more prudent than the rest of us.

After all of the effort of the composer to create a world in sound which would faithfully reproduce the universal journey from bestial struggle to angelic repose, the treatment of the symphony by this conductor and his forces was downright criminal. Again it was the balances which were so far off. The trumpets were much too loud throughout, Boulez mistakenly acquiescing in allowing them to play bells up almost the entire evening (I can’t believe that this was initially his idea). Having said that, it was amazing to hear that they did not lose too much of their intonation at these decibel levels, more suited to a rave than a classical concert. Perhaps their old-fashioned side valve trumpets are capable of holding a note more steadily than their modern equivalents. The horn section, often earmarked in other orchestras for special abuse by this reviewer, was actually magnificent all night, their nine early valve instruments perfectly blended and, when four of them switched to Wagner tubas for the last movement, the results were splendid. However, the winds were naked and whiney, the strings gaunt and colorless, and the entire ensemble was asked to play much too loudly almost continually. Gone was any sense of light and shadow, of crescendo or diminuendo, of shimmering rays reflected from the kingdom of Heaven. All that was left for us was a constant barrage of triple forte and an ugly sense of muddy brown tonal color. There was indeed strain emanating from this Bruckner’s Ninth, but it all settled in our poor assaulted ears. Carnegie seats all of us critics in the same general area of the parquet, and after the performance one of my colleagues came over to the man sitting next to me and exclaimed, “God, that sucked!”. In this particular instance, I must bow before his eloquence.

Although only a few minutes shy of two hours, the Symphony # 3 was considered incomplete by Mahler. He had composed a quiet seventh movement for the finale which would have drastically changed the overall effect of this Gargantuan landscape. Well-meaning friends (they haunted Bruckner as well) convinced him to jettison the movement, however, leaving the final impact of the work one of intense emotion conveyed by its heart-wrenching string sonorities and crescendi. The composer saved the gentle ending for his next opus, writing the entire Fourth as a prelude to his adored vision of childlike paradise. Doggedly determined to keep you, my gentle readers, informed, I made the journey back to Carnegie to hear how this band would treat such a large tonal conception, even though I could not summon up much enthusiasm for the experience.

Refreshingly, Sunday afternoon’s concert was unsatisfactory in a totally different way. Orchestral imbalance was the least of Boulez’ worries this day, rather the more commonplace contemporary problems which he engenders plaguing this performance. Although a fine Mahler conductor in the 1970’s (except for efforts with his own New York Philharmonic, with whom his lack of communication resulted in absolutely horrifying nights of Mahlerian grotesquerie), Boulez has spent the last twenty years consciously distilling all of the feeling from the Viennese master’s works and presenting them rather as series of beautiful sound snapshots signifying nothing. It is strange to speak of a lack of Viennese lilt when describing this particular orchestra, but this afternoon its spirit was decidedly conspicuous by its absence. There were also sonorous inequities with which to deal, the offstage drum in the first movement playing so loudly that it might as well have been placed directly in front of the conductor, the vital posthorn solos of the third movement taken so fast as to blur their melodic lines and obscure their nostalgic significance, and, the unkindest cut of all, the maniacal overblowing of the trumpets in the meretricious and tawdry finale. The mezzo, Lithuanian diva Violeta Urmana, was quite impressive, but her Duck of Tuonela accompaniment by the oboe seemed to inspire sloppy playing by both horn and violin soloists. To suck all of the life out of Mahler (Boulez did the same thing in his reading of the 6th last year) leaves only a timbral skeleton on which to feast, a repast even the most ravenous of my scavenger colleagues will find wanting. As I left the hall, a young woman with a heavy German accent was speaking to her companion. “I can’t explain it exactly”, she said, “but there was just something missing.” Perhaps I can help. It was the lifeblood of the artist that was drained and without it, why are we all bothering to get dressed up and attend to these proceedings?

What happened to Pierre Boulez? Like the captain in Conrad’s masterful The End of the Tether, who continues to sail even after he has gone blind, keeping his faithful Malay servant on the bridge with him at all times so that no one will know, this formerly great and sensitive conductor has come a cropper each time that I have heard him in the past few years. He either seems distracted, as he did when conducting Schoenberg at his annual workshop in 1999, or simply lets his orchestras play in a slovenly manner, as he did last season with the London Symphony. At one time, I was very fond of his dramatic sense, and still think that the orchestral sections of the old Chereau Ring, if not the singing, were the finest ever recorded. It is ironic that a man who espouses the aesthetic that it is the individual sonic moment which is the ultimate goal (rather than the total conception of the piece) should be reduced to this level of ineptitude. Perhaps, at 75, it is time for him to reassess his conductorial abilities. As a reviewer, I am forced to give Monsieur Boulez a grade. Let’s be charitable and give him an “incomplete” on the condition that he consult a competent audiologist.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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