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My Dinner With Andrew

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/14/2004 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony # 4
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony # 4

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Herbert Blomstedt (conductor)

A Month at Carnegie Hall

Part Seven

Song of Russia

It is fascinating to note how many of the great Romantic composers thought seriously of emigrating to the new world. Wagner contemplated a move to Minnesota, there to establish his festival community amongst Nordic peoples in a fresh and clean land, unencumbered by the politics and, in his particular case, fugitive warrants of central Europe. Brahms was the choice to head the conservatory that eventually hired Dvorak, and the story of his first piece of chamber music, the Piano Trio, Op. 8, being premiered in New York has largely escaped the eye of most scholars. Mahler, of course, came to Carnegie Hall and made it his own, but, out of modesty or practicality, never premiered any of his symphonies here (although he came close to choosing New York over Prague for the maiden voyage of the 7th). It was a massive undertaking to make such a long voyage, both physically and culturally, but, for the christening of Carnegie Hall, the powers that were spared no expense, capturing one of the most coveted of all prize specimens to conduct that historic opening night.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a man of considerable reputation in 1891 but perhaps a strange choice for this arduous of a journey (after all, one didn’t simply show up at Aeroflot and arrive 12 hours later in New York). His was a delicate constitution and he had undergone a long period of self-doubt, especially in regard to his conducting skills. Yet there he was, on the podium for what would turn out to be the most significant inauguration in American musical history (and captured in signature longshot by the ubiquitous Edgar Ulmer). The irony in the story, however, is that, after coming all of this way, Tchaikovsky only led his Marche Solennelle before yielding the baton to another.

His symphonies, like those of Dvorak, are divided into two groups. The first three of the Russian and the first five (or six, depending on personal preference) of the Bohemian are competent but rather uninspired works (one can almost feel the blood rushing to the faces of sentimentalists everywhere), whereas the remaining three (in each case) are amazing pieces of great maturity and prismatic tonal color. Tchaikovsky’s handed-down public image does not include intellect and yet this trio of works is remarkably inventive, rhythmically complex and compositionally daring (think of that incredible 5/4 movement in the 6th). More importantly, they are all fan favorites, popular almost to excess (that damned John Denver song!) and ecstatically rousing. An old friend used to get her child ready for school each morning by putting on the stereo either a Rossini overture or the finale to tonight’s Fourth Symphony, sending the tot out into the world inspired (and, because of the pulse-pounding pace, on time).

Coming often to Carnegie Hall, one is privileged to hear all of the world’s best ensembles and can make this judgment: at this particular moment in time, the greatest of them all is the Royal Concertgebouw, a group that will only get better next season under Jansons. Leaving his luftpausen back in Leipzig, Herbert Blomstedt is a compatible guest conductor for this intensely precise orchestra, not perhaps especially inspiring, but thoroughly adept at balance and discipline. It is Mr. Blomstedt’s fiftieth anniversary as a conductor; I remember him especially from his years in San Francisco, when he was the only maestro to produce a solid sound out of that particularly raggedy band. Staying within comfortable confines this evening, he proved able and stalwart, keeping a steady hand on the tiller of this sleek racer. The Beethoven performance was close to flawless, both technically and interpretively, the sound decidedly modern but the balances always Classical. This was a reading of this neglected masterpiece that challenges the notion that it is not one of the strongest in the Beethovenian output, the inner tension taut, the individual lines clear, the little crescendi and diminuendi quietly eloquent, the execution remarkable. It is hard to imagine a better performance of this piece at any time, anywhere.

Maestro unbuttoned just a tad for the Romantic work, allowing his players some latitude of expression while still maintaining metronomic ebb and flow. The Concertgebouw strings played as beautifully as any in recent memory (Philadelphia, Paris, Berlin before Rattle) and emphasized the fullness that would emerge to loom even more large in the composer’s next (and last) two symphonies. The trumpets and horns were most impressive, the winds perfectly together on each entrance and exit (so very rare in today’s under-rehearsed environment). The third movement was actually realized live as what it was meant to be: a showcase for the string section, every pizz in place, rather than the “muddle instead of music” into which it normally degenerates. And that finale! Hardly giving the string players time to pick up their bows from the floor, Blomstedt, realizing that this was the best ensemble before which he would ever stand, let loose with a faster than average tempo to which his players responded with enthusiasm, pride and an amazing level of accuracy. Adrenaline by the bagful leading to a wild celebration by the crowd. And this isn’t even the best part. They’re back again tomorrow!

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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