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New York
Carnegie Hall
04/27/1999 -  
Richard Strauss: Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments; Metamorphosen; Death and Transfiguration
Modest Mussorgsky
(orch. Shostakovich): Songs and Dances of Death

Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone)
Philadelphia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)

When that Philadelphia Orchestra truck is parked on West 56th Street, the savvy New York listener knows that they are in for a fine evening of musical performance. The patented "Philadelphia Sound" nurtured by Stokowski still exists and the level of musicianship remains high. This evening opened with a small wind ensemble written by Strauss when he was still a teenager infatuated with the horn, the instrument of his respected father Franz, who premiered all of those remarkable horn calls in Tristan and the Ring at Bayreuth (although personally detesting Wagner’s music). Nowhere near the stature of the Dvorak piece with similar instrumentation, this is still a pleasant work and it was lovingly played by all concerned.

Of much greater impact was the study for 23 strings written at the bitter close of World War II. Unlike his rival in the nostalgia business Gustav Mahler, Strauss lived to be an old man and could recycle his farewells to the nineteenth century way of life yet again in Metamorphosen and the profound Four Last Songs. The string study calls to mind images of Dresden and was at least partially inspired by the destruction of the Goethehaus with all of its attendant symbolism. This was a moving performance (they truly sound better under Sawallisch) and my only disappointment was the absence of concertmaster William de Pasquale who possesses one of the most elegant tones of today. The first violin part is highly significant in this piece and should be played with at least a hint of vibrato (it is, after all, a recollection of another era) however the otherwise competent soloist played much more like a violin machine than a sensitive artist.

Perhaps the build-up was too great but I expected more from the Siberian bear Dmitri Hvorostovsky, whom I was hearing for the first time. I am quite familiar with his work on CD and was expecting a lot. His massive frame (and reputation to match) produced a surprisingly wee voice, although one of burnished richness and dramatic nuance. However, I am spoiled from having heard these heartfelt songs performed earlier this season by the truly magnificent Ewa Podles, whose positively unnatural low contralto was as impressive in its way as any of the great bassos of the Russian or Bulgarian past. These are really not songs for a baritone because the tessitura is extremely low and needs a Christoff, Kipnis or Ms. Podles, the female equivalent. Her poignant bayuski, bayu, bayu… in the lullaby is still very alive in my ears and she has set a standard of acting with her voice striven for but not met by this young lion.

Orchestrating Mussorgsky is a tricky business. None of the modern arrangements of Boris are anywhere near as powerful as the primitive sonorities of the composer’s original and this problem permeates the piano to orchestra transposition as well. This Shostakovich orchestration is the best of the lot, capturing in unique klangfarben some of the primeval power of the original piano part, but ultimately not of the same barbarism.

The extraordinary performance of Tod und Verklaerung was a real treasure and had the feel of a valedictory performance by Sawallisch. There are rumors afoot that he will not tour with the orchestra in future and there was certainly a sense of farewell in this reading (Sixten Ehrling also chose Strauss to say a final goodbye to New York a few years ago). My puzzlement was piqued when Mr. De Pasquale came out and sat in the second chair, allowing his colleague to play the important solos in this lovely tone poem. Again, these solos were unsatisfying on an emotional level (although technically flawless). Sawallisch brought out the best of his multi-bowed string section and the climaxes near the end were really quite thrilling. It wont come back until next season, but I’ll be looking for that truck with much anticipation whenever I turn that historic corner.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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