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Passing The Test

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
03/04/1999 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, "Ah! perfido"
Gustav Mahler: Symphony #4

Amanda Roocroft (soprano)
New York Philharmonic
Ivan Fischer (conductor)

It's one thing to lead your own orchestra in a fine evening of music making as Ivan Fischer did earlier this season when his Budapest Festival Orchestra presented the finest orchestral concert in recent memory here with a highly well thought out program of Bartok and Stravinsky and quite another to step into the breach and conduct a famously rebellious ensemble in another man's program on short notice, but Fischer was up to the task last evening in a concert of two unusual pieces of Beethoven and the slippery slope of Mahler's Fourth. Lately it seems that the Philharmonic plays quite well for everyone except its music director as programs conducted by Christian Thieleman, Colin Davis, Valery Gergiev and now Fischer have been positively inspiring while evenings with Masur are stodgy and sloppy. Fischer was a last minute substitute for Danielle Gatti who was indisposed. Conducting the 13, 008th concert of this historic ensemble, he joined a distinguished group of guest conductors who are the dedicatees of the current exhibition at Avery Fisher, featuring the millenial programs of the 1000th through the 13,000th concerts.

The Coriolan Overture is the first great essay on the expressive art of silence and Beethoven's highly dramatic use of negative space was featured in this crisp account with fine articulation if not intonation (there were several tone clusters that have not been heard since Henry Cowell). Given the inherent problems of the Philharmonic, however, this was a fine performance that screamed the anguish of the hero (one cannot imagine the Brahms Tragic Overture without the Coriolan) and rose to the heights of the Classical orchestra totally dominated by the strings (with the caveat that the New York string tone is really quite thin).

"Ah! perfido" is a fine example of that lost musical art the concert aria. The dramatic scene for soloist and orchestra comes from the era when a concert of orchestral music was interspersed with vocal and chamber interludes as well as readings from the worlds of drama and poetry. Mozart is the master of this forgotten realm, writing many pieces in this genre that inspired the romantics, especially Berlioz, who were fascinated by the ancients. Essentially the dramatic scene is an opera highlight without an opera and "Ah! perfido" is based on that most prolific of librettists, Pietro Metastasio, whose work was scored by over 300 composers. Amanda Roocroft possesses a voice rich in volume but not in power and in fact the tonal quality can best be described as irritatingly strong. Her tones are rounded but not at all aesthetically pleasing. She ran the gamut of emotions well enough but I was not thrilled when she opened her mouth. The shadow of Glueck was present but the voice of a Dame Janet Baker was not.

A great test for a conductor is the eerie Symphony #4 of Mahler. There are several ways to conduct this work and Fischer opted for the most macabre. The woodwinds captured Mahler's dotted rhythms perfectly and, within their limitations, the Philharmonic strings played, if not like silk, at least like a higher grade of muslin. Fischer really shone in the glorious third movement (Mahler's own personal favorite), coaxing the utmost lyricism out of his cello section for the night (he is not even conducting all four concerts with this program) and cajoling a most beautiful reckoning of the final melody of the movement from the unusually placed viola section (for some reason Masur insists on his violas stage left so that their sound holes face into the stage and are as a result often inaudible) and a regal ending to the movement which also served as an introduction for Ms. Roocroft's interpretation of Mahler's Das Himmlische Leben. She at least had a conscious persona in mind (the child rather than the grandmother) and her acting ability made up somewhat for her colorless voice. She expressed magic and wonder and temporarily made us forget about her lack of pleasing timbre.

It is no small task to lead the New York Philharmonic in a concert that doesn't embarrass both the audience and the orchestra personnel. This night was actually filled with memorable moments, particularly Glenn Dicterow's zaftig attack of the scordatura fiddle in the Mahler and the well defined contrast between dotted and flowing lines which is the essence of this bizarre piece (the opening night audience was so hostile that Mahler sent the soprano out for her bow without him). The Philharmonic audience was luke-warm at best and Fischer deserved more. But New York is a tough town and a substitute conductor, like a substitute teacher, has to pay his dues first. This is the second Mahler 4 that I've heard this year with a substitute conductor (the other was Paavo Jarvi with Philadelphia) and both performances were quite good. The difference is that Jarvi had a great orchestra with which to work. Life is full of compromises and those of us who frequent the New York Philharmonic are reasonably content with evenings like this one, at least when there is no good visiting group in town.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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