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Early Music Society (20th Century Version)

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
12/09/2010 -  
Franz Liszt: The Black Gondola (Orchestrated by John Adams)
Alban Berg: Seven Early Songs
Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No 3 in A Minor (“Scottish”), Opus 56

Susan Graham (Mezzo-soprano)
Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Edo de Waart (Conductor)

L.T. Dog, S. Graham (© Susan Graham)

This past week, New Yorkers have had the unique pleasure of listening to the first published works of the last century’s most important composers. First was the expansive Webern Passacaglia. Wednesday evening, Pierre-Laurent Aimard played Messiaen’s earliest published piano pieces, Eight Preludes. Thursday, the luminescent Susan Graham–probably the only justification for the State of Texas–gave a luminous performance of Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs.

All three composers showed, if not their individual styles, at least the genesis of their confidence and inspiration. But Berg’s Seven Early Songs were cheating, for they weren’t literally his earliest works. True, he had written them early in his career, but they were revived much later.

After his success with Wozzeck, he needed funds to survive while writing Lulu and selected them for publication. To give them more economic brunt, he orchestrated the songs and mounted them in order, where the outer songs had full orchestra, the middle songs were written with chamber orchestra. And while he was initially afraid to show them to his austere teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, approved heartily.

No matter where the songs stand in the Berg complete œuvre, he was always a born song-writer, and that in a way made him more personable, more emotional, more accessible than Webern or Schoenberg. Methinks he would have been very satisfied with this partnership of mezzo Susan Graham, and that most meticulous conductor, Edo de Waart .

Each of the songs differs in complexity, but Ms. Graham has the operatic experience to change character quickly. Ms. Graham’s charm and intelligence for lyric French music was an advantage here, for nothing was written in anything approaching ponderous German lieder. Despite some dissonance, they are closer to Richard Strauss than even early atonality.

Ms. Graham was reserved at first, until the last words of the first song. “O look! Look!” she sang, and her voice rang out with operatic emotion.

In the middle songs, the chamber orchestral details were partners with her vocal line, so it was more infomal. Her so-pure mezzo rose high and softly in The Nightingale, and she added some little rhythmic tugs for the words from ”Indoors.

“So!,” she sung, “My head on your knees. That way I feel happy.”

And happy Ms. Graham made it. The final song, Summer Days brought Mr. Graham’s voice to its well-rounded highest notes, a precursor to Berg’s Lulu. Yet if the seven songs still lingered in the 19th Century. Ms. Graham made them live for ourselves.

The Berg was an early work, Liszt’s Black Gondola was one of his latest piano pieces, thus a challenge to John Adams to orchestrate. Mr. de Waart is John Adams’ most authoritative conductor, so the St. Luke’s Orchestra wold have given the “right” sound. It was a clever orchestration, with solo horns and clarinets doing the honors, while cellos and low strings gave depth to the piano part. Most important, the understated swaying of the gondola was given sensitive background by harp and soft timpani.

Ending the program was a composer who has almost disappeared from the New York concert scene. But on a frosty evening, Felix Mendelssohn’s paean to the dark and sunny sides of Scotland in his Third Symphony fit in appropriately. St. Luke’s is a fine orchestra, and their size, about half that of the New York Phil, was ideal for the transparent measures of the piece. A hibernean introduction, a sparkling second movement, and a majestic finale made the work sing out. Wisely, Mr. de Waart never took the slow movement at Adagio tempo. By speeding it up, we came more quickly to the inspiration of the final fanfares.

Harry Rolnick



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