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Listening in the Corners

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
11/29/2001 -  
Carl Maria von Weber: Overture to Oberon
Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto
Sergei Tanayev: Symphony # 4

Gil Shaham (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Neeme Jarvi (conductor)

When Hans von Buelow first championed the recently penned Piano Concerto # 1 of Tchaikovsky, he found it very rough sledding to convince any impresario to allow him to present its world premiere. The respected conductor (and most famous cuckold in music history) finally had to export the piece to the New World, presenting its first hearing in Boston in 1875. The subsequent coming out of this extremely popular debutante in Moscow was entrusted to one of Tchaikovsky’s most prized composition pupils, Sergey Ivanovich Tanayev, who so pleased the composer that he and he alone was the soloist for every significant premiere for the piano for the rest of his teacher’s creative life. Most important as an academic link, Tanayev eventually took over the reins at the Moscow Conservatory and taught, in the same composition class at the same time, both Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. In fact, anyone who reads about the turn of the century in Russian musical histories is familiar with this devoted scholar who spent a lifetime honing his prodigious contrapuntal skills and rhapsodizing about the grand tradition of the fugal Renaissance. However, opportunities in the West to hear Tanayev’s music are virtually nonexistent. He was a prominent member of the endangered species list which I developed in my editorial “What We Are Missing” just last season. The depths of the musical waters are filled with sunken treasures, but it is rare to find an adventurer willing to invest the time and energy necessary to dredge them up to the surface.

Enter Neeme Jarvi. Although long since proving himself as a fine exponent of mainstream classical music, this intrepid Estonian is still most notable for his introductions of neglected works from his little corner of the world. Singlehandedly he created an interest in the music of his native land and the works of Tubin, Kapp and Part would be unknown here without him. Additionally, since he earned his fame across the Baltic, Jarvi has also been the tireless advocate of the Scandinavians and has enriched the American musical landscape with many thoughtful presentations of Nordic masterpieces. Now the music director in Detroit, this exceptional proselytizer has taken on a new role,
paterfamilias of a significant musical family, enhanced recently by the inclusion of daughter-in-law Leila Josefowicz. With two sons making fine careers for themselves following in their father’s footsteps (Paavo’s first season as principal conductor in Cincinnati includes several Baltic essays), Jarvi has established a network which should spread the word from Tallinn for many years to come. For his New York Philharmonic appearance this season he has chosen the C minor symphony of Tanayev, now considered its composer’s number four but originally published as his first when premiered by Glazunov in 1898.

Like Mr. Jarvi himself, this symphony is big boned and powerfully built. The Philharmonic’s performance was suitably expansive, the large ensemble responding well to the direction of a true expert. One can certainly hear the germination of ideas which led to the sonic canvasses of Tanayev’s famous pupils. The string writing is lush and full, the brass and timpani ceremonially noble. As often happens in an unfamiliar work, many of the section leaders were conspicuously absent and the resulting tutti sound was fresher and more vital as a result. The adagio was especially well played and spirited passages suggesting Tchaikovsky in the scherzo (very similar to the 6th) and finale (the 4th) were crisply enunciated. Jarvi was especially adept at bringing out the unique color of the piece both in its details and as a whole and wrung as much out of his instrumental forces as humanly possible. It was hard not to be viscerally excited by the drama of this symphony and the audience roared its approval after the rousing end featuring an extended and distinctive solo roll (one with each hand) on two differently tuned kettledrums.

13,461 concerts ago, the Phil graced its inaugural performance with a version of the then relatively new overture to Oberon under the baton of its founder Ureli Corelli Hill. Maestro Jarvi led a lightning fast version of this important link between Mozart and Wagner (you can just feel Rienzi trying to break out of this music) that started this concert off in the grand old manner (sometimes, you just crave a program of an overture, a concerto and a symphony-the traditional formulas are still the best). The Brahms was a rather weak effort, however, as the soloist experienced an uncharacteristic off night. Mr. Shaham committed a faux pas in his initial entrance and became hopelessly entangled in the Joachim cadenza, desperately and dissonantly trying to extricate himself from a fingering morass, the effort leaving a grating impression on our sensibilities. He made a nice recovery though and matched beauty for beauty with the extended oboe line in a charming middle section. But the night belonged to the Tanayev. It seemed important to be in the hall to hear this neglected masterpiece (it has been performed here only once before, under Rozhdestvensky) and, thanks to Mr. Jarvi, the reading was insightful enough that some of us members of the rabble might actually want to learn more about this neglected genius.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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