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Royal Couple

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/09/2000 -  and 10 February
Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto # 1
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 7

Edgard Varese: Tuning Up
Gyorgy Ligeti: Atmospheres; Lontano
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 4

Ruth Ziesak (soprano)
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly (conductor)

Without question, Pierre Boulez is correct when he states that "music is not the Olympics" and yet it is natural for critics and audience members to rank performing groups based on their overall abilities. In my pantheon there are only a handful of great orchestras, those whose sound and consistent level of excellence far outpace their brethren, and very near the top of the list is the brilliant Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, an ensemble of such solid consistency that in its over 100 year history it has employed only five principal conductors. Their yearly appearance in New York is always a major event and under the leadership of music director Riccardo Chailly they performed two magnificent evenings at Carnegie Hall to inexplicably undersold houses.

The first wonder that struck me during the initial concert was the sheer beauty of this orchestra's sound. Having just heard the same Liszt concerto last month in Boston, I was instantly energized by the quality of the overall sonic experience, lush and burnished, rich and vibrant. The BSO approach was positively limp next to the hearty flavor of these Europeans which matched perfectly the athletic attack of the pianist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet. When I heard the piece at Symphony Hall, Emmanuel Ax approached it aristocratically and gently and this is fine, but Monsieur Thibaudet strove to be much more like the composer and launched into a sensual and electric reading. Living by the sword, he hit several wrong notes but these were swallowed by the overall gymnastic performance.

The obvious link between the two composers in program one was Richard Wagner, son-in-law and confidante of Liszt and platonic amanuensis and demigod to Bruckner. The Symphony # 7 is a vast canvas made melancholy by the death of Wagner, commemorated so lovingly in the second movement. To understand and present Bruckner properly requires a podium architect equal in vision and scope to the composer himself and Chailly may very well be the most insightful living conductor of this most Gothic of musicians. From the opening tremolos he shaped a gorgeous and above all intelligent structure in which we all could worship in harmony with the humble Austrian supplicant. The Adagio, one of Bruckner's most inspired movements, was breathtaking and impressed particularly by its shadings of timbre and exquisite phrasings. The solo flute was otherworldly and when the Wagner tuba chorale finally sounded one could feel a direct connection not only with the deceased meister of Bayreuth but also with the prayers being offered for his immortal soul The string playing of the Concertgebouw, particularly the celli, is unmatched and several patrons were audibly moved at the conclusion of this section. The Scherzo was very exciting, Chailly exaggerating the crescendo in the trumpets' insistently repetitive figure, and the Finale was glorious. Half of the largely Dutch crowd responded by cheering their favorite soloists and sections heartily and standing for prolonged applause, while the other 50 percent, in true New York fashion, tried to see who could be the rudest and get to the exits the quickest (there is a pun here somewhere on the order of "the fleeing Hollanders" but I can't quite summon it). Those of us who stayed agreed that this was a truly memorable performance.

Program two was much more adventurous. When Maestro Chailly conducted Varese earlier this season at Carnegie (with the Philadelphia Orchestra) he felt compelled to preface the piece with a short apologia to the audience. Last night he simply launched into this short whimsical work written for the film "Carnegie Hall" but never used by the director. One of the most enjoyable parts of listening to a European orchestra is that they do not sit on the stage before a concert and produce a cacophony of seemingly interminable noise. Rather the stage is empty until just prior to the performance and then they file out in dignified fashion (this was true for program one). As a joke, last evening the Concertgebouw members did come out and play random bleats and brays in a subtle parody of an American ensemble and then launched into the formalized but seemingly random thoughts of this most iconoclastic of all of the avant-garde composers. It was all in good fun and Varese student Chou Wen-chung, who realized the orchestration of the piece, came up from the audience to acknowledge the applause.

Stanley Kubrick was more than a great filmmaker. He had a fine ear for music and used it masterfully in his films (think of the Schubert Trio in "Barry Lyndon" for example). He was spot on in choosing the music of Gyorgy Ligeti to depict the loneliness of space in his "2001: A Space Odyssey" and in this program we were treated to two examples of the Hungarian master's most icily solitary music. Both Atmospheres and Lontano rely on the juxtaposition of differing sounds and are extremely hard to present with proper intonation simply because the instruments playing in unison are physically and sonically so far apart, thus making it very difficult for the individual musicians to hear what is going on around them (a technique pioneered by Schoenberg in the Variations for Orchestra). The tessitura of the two pieces encompasses the entire spectrum, with bass tubas playing along with high flutes and violins, and the effects are chillingly contemporary. This masterful orchestra was able to pull it off flawlessly. Unfortunately, there was not a large crowd at this concert to hear these important explorations and their very inclusion on the program was probably the reason why.

The Symphony # 4 of Mahler has a strange performance history. A dismal failure at its premiere under the composer, it was nevertheless the first of his symphonies to be performed in the United States, at this very hall under Walter Damrosch. It is the composer's smallest and most intimate work and has slowly become his most popular. It can be performed as a gentle, lyrical and optimistic piece and as such it possesses intense beauty. But digging deeper into the score one finds a shadow world of the ghostly and phantasmagoric and this is the approach of Maestro Chailly. He emphasized the grotesque in the first movement and presented it as an ultramodern danse macabre, populated with atonal goblins. It was easy for me to understand why the work was booed at its premiere when hearing it played thus. At one point during this bizarre movement a fight broke out in the center section and lasted for at least two minutes. I like to think that the two gentlemen shouting at each other were arguing about the conductor's interpretation but I was concentrating too much on the performance to make out the details. Chailly's reading was reinforced by the scordatura playing of the concertmaster in movement two and the extremely dissonant fanfare for brass and tympani in movement three, the most "modern" sounding passage of its day, reminiscent of the exactly contemporary La Mer. Only in the last movement was there sanctuary from Chailly's demons and the joyful relief was perfectly expressed by Ruth Ziesak's gentle child persona. She articulated the role of the innocent wonderfully, complete with pouty facial expressions. Her volume level was purposefully lowered and the orchestra accompanied in kind. But even here Maestro emphasized the bizarre nature of the piece by prolonging the last harp pluckings and exaggerating them in the silent landscape that ends this most revolutionary of Mahler's aural paintings. This was perhaps not my favorite approach to this symphony, but was certainly a revelatory and highly legitimate one.

Both concerts were exceptional. It's too bad that more New Yorkers weren't interested enough to hear them.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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