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Uneasy Lies The Head

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/07/2002 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio Overture; Symphony # 3
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto # 24

Lars Vogt (piano)
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Donald Runnicles (conductor)

“Let us hope that the days are past when any one could doubt the sanity of Beethoven’s genius in that famous collision of shadowy harmonies…”

Donald Francis Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis

Although perhaps a conservative choice musically, the selection of the ”Eroica as the major work of the first concert presented by the new principal conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s carries with it a relatively weighty historical irony. Donald Runnicles has been appointed as the leader of this fine ensemble at a significant watershed in its history, and the connotations of the Napoleonic succession and its alienating effect upon Beethoven may not be the symbolism most devoutly wished by the group’s management (at least this concert features the 24th concerto of Mozart and not the 26th!). St. Luke’s is an ensemble going through a rather noticeable identity crisis. With Roger Norrington, they perform in an annoyingly sterile manner under the rubric of authenticity. For Charles Mackerras, they espouse the concept of “rightsizing”, that is, performing on modern instruments but endeavoring to replicate the scale of the original orchestras that premiered the particular works in question. In this method they are past masters, rising to the occasion to produce highly muscular and energetic versions of the classics. However, it is interesting to observe that when these dedicated musicians are freed from the bonds of the conductors from their own power structure, they exhibit a healthy tendency towards vibrato and wholehearted play. At a recent Brahms’ Requiem conducted by Robert Bass, the director of the Collegiate Chorale, the group sounded much more like a modern orchestra giving their all for maximum emotional communication. Although they gave out a bit before the end, the experience was refreshingly full-bodied.

Thus far, my favorite leader of this excellent band is its summer replacement Peter Oundjian. At Caramoor, one has learned to rely on fine performances by St. Luke’s, who take the relaxed opportunity to display their most gritty style of playing, especially appropriate for the masculine works of composers like Brahms. Since this local organization is ubiquitous around town, the chance to evaluate their new boss firsthand is an eagerly awaited event. This review will, of course, only serve as a first impression, but, combined with others down the path, it should at least illuminate that path for those of us who somewhat confusedly (but delightedly) follow their fortunes and travails.

Beginning his reign with a bold stroke, Runnicles completely realigned his forces, positioning them on the platform in an antiphonal manner, shuffling every string section save the first violins. The resulting sound was immediately more pleasing and helped to put over a tight and exciting overture. The new maestro is in town to conduct Figaro at the Met and is thus currently immersed in exactly the right period for interpretation of this particular concerto, written during the creative process that led to the premiere of the scandalous opera. Although the 20th may be the darkest of all of the big piano works, the 24th is more relentless, foreshadowing the almost immediate creation of Don Giovanni. Mozart eschews all of the standard escape routes and remains doggedly in C Minor or its nocturnal environs throughout the intense first movement. St. Luke’s playing here was extremely invested and decidedly on the modern side (hooray!). Lars Vogt is a rising star, his intelligent reading, including his own thoughtful cadenzas, reflecting a troubled anxiety hidden just below the harmonic perfection (a mirror of Vienna itself). His is a fine combination of feather light touch and steady digital strength; this was Mozart played at a very high level of understanding.

One could argue until judgment day as to which funeral march is the most affecting (for me it is Siegfried’s), but, if the Runnicles version of the Eroica were accepted (or acceptable), it would not even be considered a candidate. Here the deficiencies of interpretation far outweighed their excellent technical presentation. The tempi were much too fast throughout, even taking into consideration the period movement’s “scholarship”, and the tremendous effort of players and leader to produce a suitably rugged and steely sound was dwarfed by the undervaluing of one of the world’s greatest of masterpieces. Although there was much dexterity and perspiration in evidence (especially by the put-upon string basses, who somehow kept up with this frenetic pace), any sense of musicality was trampled in the semiquaver stampede. I suppose that if this sprint was designed to illustrate the ensemble’s ability to play cleanly with alacrity, it was suitably interesting (like a sideshow), but to perform the entire Beethoven 3 as if it were the third movement of the Shostakovich 8 is just plain perverse. This performance was all sizzle and no steak.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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