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Can't Anyone Here Play This Game?

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/30/2000 -  
Richard Wagner: Faust Overture
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto # 2
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony # 9

Rudolf Buchbinder (piano)
Vienna Symphony
Vladimir Fedoseyev (conductor)

The dazzling musical history of Vienna can easily make one forget that the quotidian concert ensemble in this capital of Western music is the highly competent Vienna Symphony Orchestra (a sort of Vienna Philharmonic with women) which is currently celebrating its 100th anniversary in grand style. Blessed with great conductors (Walter, Scherchen and Krips among others) and involved in many significant early LP recording projects (for example the groundbreaking Mahler discs of F. Charles Adler) this steady ensemble has a right to be proud of its first century of performance. Vladimir Fedoseyev presented a rather unusual program last evening as the Carnegie Hall installment of their big year's celebration.

Although I absolutely love the piece, I have had the devil's own luck lately with the Rach II. In Philadelphia I was witness to a pitched battle between the 100 men of Wolfgang Sawallisch and their antagonistic soloist Ivo Pogorelich. In three movements orchestra and soloist never once played in sync, Mr. P. moving at a snail's pace, deconstructing each and every passage, while the band tried to play on as normal. Then the Boston Symphony planned what I imagine would have been a very satisfying reading with Krystian Zimerman at Carnegie, only to have the great man cancel in order to tour with his own orchestra in the two Chopin concerti. Whom we received instead was Nelson Friere, an artist with an abundant sense of modesty, admirable in the main perhaps, but woefully out of place in a big work like this Romantic landscape. Again, orchestra and soloist were in disagreement, Ozawa extolling his forces to sound broad and lush while Friere explored the intimate. Would the third time prove a charm?

On at least one level, yes. There was no disunion between soloist and orchestra in their conception of the work. However, this timidly conservative approach left much of the passion in the piano bench. Nowhere were there the grand gestures that characterize the great performances of this concerto, left for us as a cherished recorded legacy by the composer himself (not to mention other spectacular performances by Kappell and Richter). Mr. Buchbinder was seemingly incapable of feeling the large-scale sweep of this amazing music. The orchestra followed along rather sheepishly. Phrasing was an issue as well, the gorgeous transition from flute to clarinet of the second movement (used so compellingly in the film Brief Encounter) was ragged and destroyed by flautist and clarinetist having differing views of the melodic line. The pianism was woefully inaccurate as well and, because of its straightforward style, exposed for all to hear rather than hidden in a Romantic blur as is often the cheap trick employed for this piece. New York was filled with revelers today, in town for the parade to honor the World Series champion Yankees, and in this historic hall the ghost that appeared to me this night was not that of Seidl or Mahler, Horowitz or Heifetz, but rather that of Casey Stengel, who experienced both the rapture of managing a winner for so many years and the character building assignment of piloting the original New York Mets, so hapless in their first season that this strategic genius was heard to exclaim in total frustration the quote which serves as the title for this humble little essay. I felt remarkably the same as I listened to what should have been such a beautiful experience turn positively ugly with the bizarre combination of brass and strings which appears to be to Maestro Fedoseyev's liking, but is certainly anathema to me.

The Shostakovich fared a little better but was plagued with intonational problems in horn and vitally important solo bassoon. This humorous piece was a strange ending to an uncomfortable evening but was supplanted as our final impression by encores of Strauss waltzes (this is the Vienna Symphony after all). Perhaps a tactical era on Maestro's part: the group played these signature works so well (complete with audience participation hand clapping) that we were all left with the impression that maybe they should stick to what they know best. But since it was the eve of Hallowe'en and not the New Year, this performance seemed bizarrely out of place and time.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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