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Winter Light

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
04/15/2002 -  
Franz Schubert: Symphony # 6
Alexander Scriabin: Symphony # 1

Larissa Diadkova (mezzo)
Sergej Larin (tenor)
New York Choral Artists
New York Philharmonic
Riccardo Muti (conductor)

When I was on the radio, my boss once came into the studio as soon as he had arrived at work and asked what was that ravishingly beautiful piece that I was currently playing. He had spent the last half an hour driving in, totally captivated by this music but, even though he was quite conversant with the literature (he was the head of the classical department), he was at a loss to identify the composition or even to make an educated guess as to its place or time of genesis. The work was the Symphony # 1 of Alexander Scriabin and was conducted by the man most responsible for keeping its aura then glowing, Riccardo Muti. Now, at least ten years later, Maestro Muti is still one of the very few outside of Russia who expends the effort to mount productions of this flaming comet, even though his music is so wonderously unique.

Scriabin truly lived in his own world, both musically and socially. Slonimsky’s lexicographic description of him is a “remarkable Russian composer whose solitary genius had no predecessors and left no disciples”. Born rich enough to dwell in the Russian countryside away from the quotidian pressures of urban recognition, he developed, like Ives, his own musical language based on pantheistic spiritualism and maintained his aristocratic air of individualism even after financial pressures forced him to capitalize on his pianistic precocity to earn a living for his own young family, at least until the largesse of a wealthy patron allowed him to resume his life of leisure in Switzerland and, eventually, America. While attending Tanayev’s composition classes at university, in fact in the same class as Rachmaninoff, the young mystic already dreamed of his creations as integrating the worlds of aural and visual communication. He even went so far as to invent a keyboard that would project different colors for different chordal combinations (the forerunner of today’s rock show paraphernalia). There may be a direct connection with exposure to the aurora borealis here, as the same relationship of color to sound strongly affected the cognitive vocabulary of Sibelius. One of the most interesting concerts that I have attended in recent years was Leon Botstein’s “Music and the Visual Imagination”, wherein one of Scriabin’s light shows was recreated for a modern, short attention span public. In the First Symphony, heard last evening at Avery Fisher Hall, it is the chorus which provides this sense of “mixed media”.

In an interesting subplot to all of this, Muti was general manager Zarin Mehta’s first choice to replace Kurt Masur as leader of this reckless band (the brother of former music director Zubin has somewhat limited choices, what with the Phil’s strict policy since 1949 of not hiring a chief conductor whose surname does not begin with the letters M or B), but turned him down flat when asked to contribute more than eight weeks of his time per year (actually, this revered leader might still be in Philadelphia if he had not become so homesick for his beloved early Italian repertoire). It is a shame that no meeting of the minds could have occurred, as last evening’s concert proved beyond any doubt that this maestro radiates a confident and infectious positivism heartily endorsed by this orchestra. The “little C Major” was not only a model of classic proportion, fashioned in the workshop of an elegant Italian miniaturist, but also projected just the right hint of lilt and insouciance, the perpetuum mobile strings of the first movement straight out of an early Rossini overture. The delicacy and playfulness of the charming whole easily identified this gentle piece as the urtext for the Mahler 4, and the players expended a great deal of effort to appear to sing so effortlessly. Muti’s elegant and eloquent gestures seemed to energize the group significantly, and their evenhanded and graceful execution of every phrase and transition left the smooth impression of the pristine Sunday afternoon skating rink in the mind’s ear. Saving the best for last, the dramatic contrast of the violins’ insistent melody at the very end stood out in stark bas-relief. This was old school Classicism, rare in contemporary performances long on effects but short on ideas.

To establish some historical perspective on the infrequency of Scriabin evenings, the last time that the Phil played this symphony was under the baton of Wassily Safonoff, who had given the premiere in Moscow in 1901! How fitting then that, 100 years later, the new reigning expert take the helm for a truly spectacular rendering. This is a huge work, not just in terms of sheer numbers (there is little wriggle room left on the stage) but also in conception. Nothing short of an exploration of the physical universe is in order and not simply limited to the earthbound. What was most amazing and aesthetically pleasing from the outset was the lushness of the Philharmonic strings, producing an entirely different sound from the piece before the interval, and the interplay between this opulence and the shining solos of concertmaster Sheryl Staples. In fact, this was a night to revel in the individual talents of the orchestra as well as their total sound. The trio of Robert Langevin (stolen from Pittsburgh two years ago), Stanley Drucker and Joseph Robinson produced heart-melting solos for the flute, clarinet and oboe respectively (and respectfully) and blended beautifully in the unusual harmonies of this master of arcane and unique language. The second lento (this is a fully fleshed-out six movement exploration) was the most profoundly communicated, built by Maestro with a positively Brucknerian intensity. But it is the second allegro that really pushes the spiritual envelope, venturing into the stratosphere for an anxious and straining attempt to see over the front of the line into the face of the creator. Muti and his orchestra really outdid themselves in an on-the-edge portrayal of expectancy, the strings manic in their excitement, the brass coolly majestic in detached contrast.

All of this striving for the empyrean continued in more human form in the final andante. Both soloists were especially strong voiced, projecting from the back of the stage a poignantly personal combination of awe and hubris, not man the supplicant but rather the exalted instrument of the art that he so anthropomorphically deifies. Even the straining of the New York Choral Artists (especially the altos) was not wholly out of place here (they sing for so little actual time anyway). An extremely moving end to such a cosmic journey and a much appreciated opportunity to luxuriate in such a heady atmosphere. One wonders how many nights of equal power we can expect under Maazel.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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