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A Little Nightmare Music

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
04/26/2001 -  
Richard Wagner: Prelude to Tristan und Isolde
Arnold Schoenberg: Erwartung
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony # 5

Francoise Pollet (soprano)
New York Philharmonic
David Robertson (conductor)

Arnold Schoenberg was born on September 13, 1874. As an ardent numerologist, this fact haunted him throughout his life, his greatest fear being that he would die on the 13th as well. Schoenberg’s fascination with numbers was a natural adjunct of his scholarly approach to music history and his written scores are as mathematically sound as any augenmusik of the High Renaissance. Triskaidekaphobia notwithstanding, his study of mathematical relationships led to the twelve-tone system, a very positive advance in the evolution of a coherence in music which moved away from the beast that he himself had unleashed under the rubric of pantonalism. There was certainly a mystical quality to his deification of the dozen (twelve months of the year, twelve apostles, twelve tribes of Israel, etc.), but his irrational abhorrence of the number 13 (he changed the spelling of his opera to Moses und Aron to avoid the dreaded sum) always seemed inconsistent with his detached and professorial manner. When he took sick in later years in Southern California, Schoenberg, like Mahler and Strauss before him, wrote a composition which mirrored the experience of human mortality. His String Trio, a reconstruction of his stay in hospital, is remarkable as the first work in Western music to attempt to destroy the concept of form entirely, the individual phrases descriptive in and of themselves without any systematic relation to one another. Like the raveled threads of the last movement of Mahler’s 9th, the passages in this quietly revolutionary work are characters in search of an author, creations adrift in the far reaches of space, reverberations of the big bang. The effect of this formlessness is disquieting, but, after the patient recovered, he embraced anew the precepts of cohesion, even drifting into conventional tonality before the inevitable end which came, as either a sad irony or a self-fulfilling prophecy, on July 13, 1951.

As July 2001 approaches there are a few scattered events planned to commemorate this important 50th death year. James Levine will be conducting the Gurrelieder soon and Tanglewood will have a memorial concert this summer. Kurt Masur had both the sensitivity to plan four concerts near the end of his season which will feature works of Schoenberg and to engage conductors like James Conlon and David Robertson who are sufficiently conversant in the idiom to communicate this arcane music intelligibly. Originally, Masur was to inaugurate the series with a reading of Transfigured Night, which is well within the scope of his repertory instincts, but eventually eliminated both himself and the work from that concert. Now reduced to three programs, the Philharmonic began its actual Schoenberg tribute with perhaps the most uncompromising of all of his works, the monodrama Erwartung.

Already stung by critical wrath, Schoenberg did not translate his title as “nightmares” but rather as “expectations”, but the former is much closer to the passionately Freudian guilt which is the subject of this one character, one act drama. Spoken in pitch rather than sung, the work is part of the now out of fashion melodrama tradition, a body of work still familiar in the early years of the twentieth century but virtually unknown today. The form exists in the repertoire now only as isolated scenes, perhaps the best known the “Wolf Glen” section of Weber’s Freischuetz. A close listening to this wild, shuddering polytonal score reveals its basic Romanticism updated to the contemporary fascination with The Interpretation of Dreams. To pull it off, one needs a singer of supreme confidence and a conductor who is not afraid to make his forces sound surreal, even to the point of vulnerability to the uneducated ears of the public. Jessye Norman scored a real triumph at the Met under Levine’s courageous leadership of their fabulous orchestra some years ago. Could the New York Phil hope to measure up?

Ben Britten once wrote a theatre piece for children, designed to inspire their creativity, which he called Let’s Make an Opera. The conceit was that snippets of plot and melody could be combined as the audience liked (Fred Rogers’ operas for American television had the same feel). One would think that this is the last work that would come to mind at a performance of Erwartung, and yet I reflected upon it as I listened to Mr. Robertson cut and paste the Tristan prelude onto the Schoenberg without even so much as a bar’s rest. For reasons best known only to himself, he grafted one work onto the other. They meshed harmonically, but to what end? The performances themselves were first rate, the Wagner notable for its shimmering quality, the Phil celli quite moving in their broad-based romanticism, the orchestra as a whole highly responsive to the difficult and subtle coloration of the Schoenberg. I was particularly impressed with Robertson’s contrasting of individual instrumental lines with the tutti sound and the timbral possibilities of these solo passages in combination with the soprano voice. Ms. Pollet was daring in her harrowing journeys of pitch, hitting the very center of these difficult notes consistently, but at the same time I found her lack of emotion disconcerting in such an inner-directed piece.

When Robertson was a serious candidate for the job in Philadelphia, it was generally acknowledged that he was a 20th century expert, but there was some concern as to how he would conduct Beethoven. Judging from his current effort, he has not achieved a mature conception as yet, not communicating the Olympian nature of the Fifth Symphony (what was this doing on the program?), but still presenting a high-energy performance of exceptional cohesion. The orchestra plunged headlong into his frenetic tempi, not really suitable for the first two movements, but really exciting for the finale. Dynamics were ignored in crucial spots and there was a major cut in the last movement, but overall this was still a satisfying performance, especially notable for its crisp execution. Robertson will certainly make an orchestra a fine leader someday; for now, it was just nice to actually hear some music of Schoenberg at the Schoenberg Festival.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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