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A Matter of Public Record

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
01/09/2003 -  
Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet, Overture-Fantasy
Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto
Igor Stravinsky: Petrouchka

Julia Fischer (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel (conductor)

A musician as intelligent as Pierre Boulez has many public incarnations: composer, essayist, lecturer, mentor, tastemaker (Pauline Kael’s description of Woody Allen as the American Cultural Commissar could be easily adapted to fit Boulez in Europe) and, of course, conductor. Even as a podium presence, there are at least two distinct versions of the man. I have always enjoyed his recordings, from the Bayreuth cycle, including the darkest, most viscerally exciting orchestral opening of Siegfried, Act II in history, right down to today’s challenging versions of Mahler and Bartók. However, his track record as a concert conductor is much less impressive. In the ‘70’s, I suffered through his disastrous days with the New York Philharmonic, ascribing, in my most rabid polemical manner, all of the obvious problems to the recalcitrance of the musicians and their bullying of this overly delicate saint whose only mistake was accepting such a rough and tumble position in the first place. But now, so many years later, I question where the blame may have lain, as Monsieur Boulez has consistently exhibited an ineffective leadership ability in various live events with disparate groups. Some conductors and performers are more suited to the recording studio: Boulez appears to be one of them.

I sense that a similar propensity exists within Lorin Maazel. For many years, it has been puzzling to try and reconcile a fine body of recordings with the barrage of criticism of his actual concert performances and the perception that he has left a ghostly flotilla of orchestral wreckage in his wake. My last three encounters with the man prior to this new season, each preceded by great expectations, have been disconcertingly disappointing. First, his Mahler 5 with the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie could not hold together as his patented slow tempi for this particular composer were not consistently applied and the musicians rebelled against them in their phrasing choices. Next, his preciously micromanaged version of the same genius’ First Symphony with his then primary orchestra (Bavarian Radio) exhibited the irritating anal retentiveness of a despot determined not to allow the music to breathe freely (although, he did allow the horns to stand at the end) without his own personal stamp on each and every measure. Finally, in what would turn out to be his audition piece for the New York Phil job, Maazel conducted what appeared to be a well thought out version of the Symphony # 8 of Anton Bruckner. The only wrinkle was that the players were not paying much attention to him and skipped off on their own overgrown path of nebulous entrances and poor intonation (in a masterstroke of diplomacy, Maestro cancelled a rehearsal for this performance, stating to the players, whose support he so desperately needed for confirmation of his employment, that they didn’t need the practice). Now that he is ensconced at Avery Fisher, it will be fascinating to compare the real deal with the painstakingly created persona that graces the album covers and publicity brochures.

For almost fifty years now, I have been listening to performances of the works of Gustav Mahler and my favorite bar none is a radio broadcast that I picked up one night from Warsaw of the 7th with the Pittsburgh Symphony led by Maazel. My best argument against the bizarre but commonly held notion that this is the weakest of the composer’s symphonies is to play this incredibly exciting version: I can’t imagine anyone not trembling with delight by its end (the spontaneous reaction of the Polish crowd is itself electrifying). So the magic is there in Lorin Maazel’s heart; the question is, can he consistently share it with the rest of us?

I have been called to task in various emails from readers because, at my age, my definition of “young” is a bit too expansive (I plead guilty), but Julia Fischer is actually only nineteen years old. As a result, there is plenty of time for her to develop into a fine concert artist. However, she is far from the mark at this stage and it is puzzling to contemplate her glowing European press notices when actually given the opportunity to hear her perform. Her phrasing, to be kind, is idiosyncratic, betraying what appears to be a decided unfamiliarity with basic musical syntax. Melodic ideas, especially in the first movement cadenza, were chopped into irregular sections, new thematic thoughts not allowed to blossom without first dragging along the baggage of the previous lyrical idea. Ms. Fischer made far too many technical gaffs and outright mistakes to qualify her for praise and she has a particularly annoying habit of clipping off arpeggio-ending high notes prematurely so as to have her hand back in position on time for the next run. There wasn’t much to compensate for this general awkwardness: no singing tone, but rather a pedestrian monochrome, surprisingly little élan for so young a performer, and a gingerly approach to attacks which could, I suppose, be classified as reserved but communicated precious little passion.

For oh so brief a time, Maestro Maazel seemed to have improved the overall sound of the Philharmonic, but now, not even halfway through his initial season, the gang is up to its old tricks again: sloppy entrances and exits, fuzzy intonation, lack of ensemble play, and botched solos. Not only those dreadful trumpets, but oboe and clarinet solos in the featured ballet music were embarrassingly discordant. Maazel is a solid overseer of tonal color and so I was pleased with his allowing the percussionist to drop the tambourine rather than simply striking it at the death of Petroushka, but the strings had broken on this particular marionette long before the appropriate time. The apparition that appears before the mountebank at the work’s conclusion was much more ghastly in this version than anything the composer would have dared to include in the original score. Had this been a studio reading, even a full day of retakes would not have been able to save it.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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