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Cherche La Femme

New York
Carnegie Hall
11/12/2002 -  11/13/02
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto # 1
Benjamin Britten: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell
Alma Mahler (orch. Matthews): Seven Songs
Rodion Shchedrin: Dialogues with Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich: Entr'acte Suite; Symphony # 10

Jane Irwin (mezzo)
Krystian Zimerman (piano)
Pittsburgh Symphony
Mariss Jansons (conductor)

It is a curious phenomenon of cultural history that we often feel protective of our favorite artists but don’t manifest those maternal feelings until long after their deaths. At this summer’s Bard festival devoted to the life and works of Mahler, there was a general attitude of malice towards Alma, exploited by lecturers to gain even more sympathy for our hero. The historical process is, of course, one dominated by revisionism and this entire subject was treated brilliantly by Leon Botstein’s keynote essay, “Whose Gustav Mahler?”. The two New York evenings of the Pittsburgh Symphony this week at Carnegie Hall each featured music that calls to mind this entire domestic life as public property debate: the Piano Concerto # 1 of Johannes Brahms and a set of songs by Frau Mahler herself.


Brahms, seventeen years her junior, expressed great admiration for Madame Schumann but his private correspondence reveals his true feelings. Examples such as “…every day I greet and kiss you a thousand times…” and “I believe I can never love a girl again…They merely promise us the heaven which Clara opens…” indicate his true passion for this great lady. We are asked to believe that their many trips together after Schumann died and the time that they lived in the same house were chaste. Each listener may draw his or her own conclusions, but it is interesting to note that the composer never married or became terribly involved with any other woman, although in his own mind he was the ardent suitor of daughter Julie (it would seem that Johannes was in love with both Frau and Herr Schumann), the illusion so engrained that, on her wedding day, Brahms sent the doleful Alto Rhapsody to her mother as an emblem of his deep regret (cf. “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht” of Mahler). What unmistakably survives is the graceful and loving second movement of the First Concerto, eventually acknowledged by Brahms to be a portrait from afar of his beloved Clara.

Krystian Zimerman approaches this movement with particular reverence. A very slow and deliberate tempo allows him to build the chordal crescendi powerfully, with a great sense of restraint and dignity. The outer movements he hears as more muscular, and he plunged headlong into an athletic account marred somewhat by the ensemble’s lack of precision. Zimerman has a fine second career now (actually a third, since he is also an accomplished organist) as a conductor and often tried to coax the recalcitrant sections along to follow his lead, however the players, uncharacteristically, seemed unfocused throughout. Much of the orchestral solo passagework was deficient and wandering, neither of the two heads of the twin conducting presence (the pianist and Jansons often moved in synchronized unison) able to snap them to attention.

At their joint trial, Serge Prokofieff audaciously and audibly exclaimed to Dmitri Shostakovich “what do these people know of music?”. In typical ironic fashion, Shostakovich answered some years later by pretending to make his scandalous opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District more palatable in a tamed version christened Katerina Izmailova, which was actually equally revolutionary, grim and naturalistic. By that time, the word “formalism” had lost any vestige of meaning that it might have had under Stalin and so the composer was spared future official scorn. Somewhere along the line, someone fashioned a sequence of entr’actes from the two operas, but failed to make any effort to merge them musically. This is not Four Sea Interludes but rather a ridiculous platter of hors d’oeuvres too sour to be a suite and almost as heterogeneous as the former Soviet Union itself. Once again, the orchestra performed in a ragged manner, only increasing the awkwardness of the many disconnects. More’s the pity, as this was a Carnegie Hall “Introduction to the Classics” concert, and many younger people were left with the impression that this particular composer had little sense of form or symmetry.

Normally justifiably, Mariss Jansons is very proud of his musicians and usually brings at least one work per season to New York that shows off their individual talents. This year it is the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and it was forged mightily in the Pittsburgh blast furnace. Everyone was hitting on all cylinders for this marvelous showcase piece and the evening’s proselytizing mission was saved even if the overall impression was a bit disappointing.


Her own worst nightmare, Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel has devolved through popular cultural history as an off-color joke. The mere mention of her name evokes sniggers from those who wish to impress with their erudition, especially if that knowledge is gleaned primarily from movies and television. Having now been reinvented by the media, she will probably never settle in to an unembroidered role on the fin-de-siecle stage, and is doomed to be the standard bearer or bete noir of every music historian with a political or sociological agenda (god save us!). Always talked about, but never listened to, she exists as a composer only among the sofa cushions of overstuffed Victoriana. And yet there was certainly craft there, and a grasp of basic compositional principles that actually outdistanced her famous husband, especially in Baroque counterpoint and voice leading technique (odd that Mahler, a Bruckner protégé, carried about in his musical valise this particular lacuna).

Jane Irwin did a creditable job in conveying these pretty student works. The orchestration was a total fiction, created by helpers from the infamous reconstruction of hubby’s Tenth Symphony and only marginally of value. These songs are ultimately from the same dusty drawer wherein those of Nietzsche reside: far more interesting as documents than as art. The ensemble, thankfully, was in much better voice this second night.

Mstislav Rostropovich claims that when he conducts the works of Shostakovich, he sees his face looming before him. A similar sense of kinship to an avuncular friend is exhibited in the imaginative piece by Rodion Shchedrin which opened this concert. Like Bellow’s Herzog, Shchedrin communicates on a regular basis with the dead and famous and presents an evocative musical landscape on which to overlay his memories. Here the orchestra was challenged and motivated to produce playing on a much higher level than that of the first evening. I am afraid that the Brahms may have been allocated only a smidgen of rehearsal time in favor of this difficult essay. If so, shame on them. Economic realities aside (and, it should be noted, there were a disturbing number of empty seats at both of these events), all of their efforts need to be thoroughly prepared. Mr. Shchedrin was on hand for a well deserved round of applause.

I find the 10th to be the weakest of Shostakovich’s mature symphonies. The rat in the maze freneticism is so omnipresent as to tend towards the tedious, and although this might be by design, it calls to mind the problem of Antonioni: when one fashions a work of art about human ennui, one runs the risk of boring one’s audience. Here, so much unrelenting hysteria can appear in the 21st century a bit dated, like ‘60’s protest rock (unlike, say, the anti-Stalinist fictions of Orwell, which have a genuine timeless quality about them). Having said that, the adrenaline soaked Allegro is one of this unique artist’s most powerful creations and this night the Pittsburghers really nailed it. This entire performance was first rate: clean and crisp, vibrant and vital, high definition individuality of line. This is the Pittsburgh Symphony that I know and love.

Mariss Jansons at the Concertgebouw! A devoutly to be wished consummation to be sure, it inevitably leaves a huge pair of shoes to fill. I don’t have any scuttlebutt to pass along as yet, but another Pennsylvania orchestra recently passed on the best candidate of the lot. I would love to hear David Robertson open the 2004-05 season at Heinz Hall.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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