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Portrait of the Dodecaphonist as a Young Artist

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
05/03/2009 -  
Anton Webern: Im Sommerwind
Gustav Mahler: Rückert Lieder
Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C Major, “The Great”

Christianne Stotijn (Mezzo-Soprano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (Principal Conductor)

Christianne Stotijn (© Marco Borggreve)

Here’s a party trick. Take a crowd of knowledgeable friends and play a recording ot Im Sommerwind, asking them to name the composer. Unless they’ve heard it before, bafflement will abound. Some will say “Delius”, others, “A rejected movement from Alpine Symphony,” still others might guess Zemlinsky or Korngold.

Not one in a thousand could ever guess that that feared, quantum-physicist of music, the jeweler who cut his diamonds until nothing was left but electrons—yes, Anton Webern—was the composer of this lovely landscape.

True, he wrote it when he was only 21 years old, before studying with Arnold Schoenberg. But this idyllic picture of nature, with birdcalls, gentle winds, lovely musical images of wide-open countryside and the elements of nature was anything but Webernian. It is still a beautiful (if minor) tone-painting. Had he continued in this vein. Webern might be known today as the Austrian Edward MacDowell instead of (as Stravinsky called him) “the perpetual Pentecost.”

Webern never denied writing this most uncharacteristic work, but he never made any attempt to have it played. In fact, not only a quartet-century after his untimely death did it have a premiere. And while welcomed on any program as “the easy Webern”, it is rarely programmed.

Bernard Haitink didn’t have to work this into his program of three Austrians, since he has frequently performed more advanced Webern works, with great success. But it was a warm, welcome landscape on a soggy New York evening. And the Chicago Symphony, with its miraculous instrumentalists did a fine job.

More fascinating—especially knowing more advanced Webern—was Gustav Mahler’s five Rûckert Lieder, changing the order, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen ("I am lost to the world"), coming at the end. That ethereal Dutch mezzo Christianne Stotijn was the soloist, and her sensitive vocal tones, her effortless and highly emotional feelings should have carried us away. That didn’t happen, alas, but it was hardly Ms. Stotijn’s fault. Although the orchestral forces were moved back from the proscenium, the resonating acoustics of Carnegie Hall precluded her voice being always heard. The voice floated above the orchestra, but frequently faded into the stratosphere, making her almost inaudible.

In a few days, Thomas Quasthoff will perform the same songs, and the contrast should be fascinating.

Still the revelation of this orchestra was how it resembled mature Webern. Few soloists played more than a few bars before being taken up by another instrument. It was as if the work (written a year before Im Sommerwind) anticipated that the colors of an orchestra were not merely for decoration but were an equal partner with melody and harmony.

The final Schubert Ninth was played with a moderate Viennese melodic appreciation. The first movement can appear almost martial at times, but Mr. Haitink kept the instruments melodic, even the outbursts with a legato roundness. Yet during all three movements, my thoughts had an inkling less of Vienna than of Venice. Most notably St. Mark’s Cathedral. Even when the strings had the upper hand, the trombones of the CSO were playing as a kind of ostinato, a solo above the soloists, leading a religious gravity to what is a most spiritual work.

A word on the conductor. It was again satisfying to see conductor Bernard Haitink on the dais. He is the living proof of the interpretative artist transcending mere bodily ailments. His pinched nerve made it necessary for him to sit during the concert, but, as in Bruckner’s Eighth on Saturday evening, his hands and arms were vibrantly alive for all three works. Not to mention a mind which sculpts, moulds and interprets with rare success.

Harry Rolnick



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