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Germaine to the German

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/11/2003 -  
Felix Mendelssohn: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage
Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto, Symphony # 1

Rudolf Buchbinder (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra
Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)

Yet it behooves us, under the storms of God,
Ye poets! with uncovered head to stand,
With our own hand to grasp the Father's lightning-flash
And to pass on, wrapped in song,
The divine gift to the people.

Friedrich Holderlin

The hegemony of “German” music for the last 350 years is well known and documented, but what is not often thought about on this side of the pond is the difference between the pure product and the adulterated version influenced by Austrian sensitivities and urbanities. In the mid-eighteenth century, as a legacy of the Seven Years’ War, these musical antitheses were sharpened by the pointed quill of jingoism; over time, however, they blur into stylistic similarities. Of course, Mozart and Haydn, Bruckner and Schubert, Mahler and Berg, and Schoenberg and Webern were all from another country, but even the mature Beethoven and Brahms plied their trade almost exclusively on foreign soil. Of the major composers, only Wagner and Schumann (and, in the second tier, Weber, Reger and Bruch) were native artisans (Mendelssohn’s cosmopolitanism eliminates him from this discussion). What is common to these insulated Rheinlanders is a certain rough hewn spirit, a larger than life sense of storytelling, the idiom of the forest, as sharply distinct as the contrast between the ethos of the ghostly Schwarzwald and that of the benign Wienerwald.

Focusing their Carnegie season on the works of Robert Schumann, the Philadelphia Orchestra has been lately expressing supreme advocacy for the northern version of romanticism. Led by as secure an expert as is alive today (one can only possibly challenge Wolfgang Sawallisch’s own hegemony in these matters with the less consistent Kurt Masur), the series has thus far been extremely masculine and revelatory. Spread throughout the year, it allows us to ponder these Teutonic matters at our leisure. Next season at Carnegie, Daniel Barenboim, a much more international figure ironically under fire in Berlin of late for his own ethnicity, will traverse the same four symphony and corollary concerto repertoire in one week with his dependable Staatskapelle Orchestra. Leaving aside issues of communicative quality, it will be interesting to compare the two experiences as distinct views from the temporal telescope.

No work is more prototypical of this type of rugged naturalism than the ”Spring” Symphony. Last evening’s rendering was thrilling in its rhythmic intensity, inspiring some discreet head-banging in the crowd. Especially impressive was its sense of propulsion, the gesture most appropriate from the maestro an exhortatory twisting of the wrist. This ensemble is so solid that one can relax and let the sound just wash over oneself, confident in the knowledge that when the brass fanfares arrive, they will be noble and clear, not broken and tentative. 21st century orchestra attendance can be an exhausting and nervous experience for a caring listener; it is joyously refreshing and just plain pleasurable to hear such expert professionals at work.

The concerto was also notable for its intensity, but in a different sense. Rudolf Buchbinder exuded that requisite feeling of confidence, so much so, in fact, that he could explore his own gentle and unhurried conception of the piece accompanied by our tacit complicity (and, eventually, our heartfelt applause). My last encounter with this work was an overblown and bombastic reading by Martha Argerich and Charles Dutoit. It was delightful to feel this night such a delicate touch, a gliding rather than a marching aesthetic. Even the oddly vestigial second and third movements seemed more integral to the whole without the unfortunately all too common meretricious approach to the original fantasia which is this mongrel’s first section when interpreted by less secure minds and hands. Of course, the support of such sumptuous strings helped immeasurably.

The entire affair began with a lovely Mendelssohnian tableau. It certainly has been calm seas and prosperous voyages under Sawallisch. Let’s hope the tides are still with us under the new captain.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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