Monday, August 2, 2010

Bread & Blossom

My coworker Sheilagh had a garage sale over the weekend. Daniel & I bought a bread maker and some knick-knacks. As soon as we got home, Daniel rushed to the store, bought ingredients, and made a loaf of wheat-raisin bread. Delicious, but not conducive to a reduced carbohydrate diet.

Did you ever sit and listen to an orchestra play a fine overture and imagine that things were as they ought to be and not as they are?
- Harry Truman

Saturday evening, Daniel & I headed to Blossom Music Center for a concert with the Cleveland Orchestra. It was an especially well balanced program: Vaughn-Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije Suite, and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1. in D minor with pianist Stephen Hough.   

Starting with the final work on the program, I must confess to having an on-again/off-again relationship with the Brahms Concerto. A popular discussion among pianists is which concerto is the most “difficult.” The Rachmaninoff Third usually gets the nod (unless one includes non-standard repertoire works like the mammoth Busoni Concerto). But while the Rachmaninoff Third is more technically advanced, in many ways the loftier Brahms First is more difficult to carry off. It’s the work of a young composer, who had deep ideas, but had not completely mastered orchestration and did not write idiomatically for the piano.   For me, the crux of the problem is twofold: achieving balance between the piano and orchestra, and maintaining a singular dramatic “through-line” during the very long first movement.

Stephen Hough has written about this concerto, and I concur with his opinion: the Second Concerto is the work of a more mature, seasoned, “professional” composer, but the First Concerto reaches higher and digs deeper.

The Brahms D minor is probably the most poorly served Concerto in the standard repertoire. There are precious few exemplary recordings of it. Indeed, the first recording of it I ever heard was an execrable version by Arthur Rubinstein that should not have been released (he recorded much better versions of it with Reiner and Leinsdorf). I have not heard Hough’s recording of the work, but after Saturday night’s concert, I plan to get it. 

All too often, one tends to hear the first movement played like the work of a prematurely middle-aged composer – soggy and weighted down. But Hough brought out the tragic ardor in the movement without negating the composer’s Maestoso (Majestic) marking – partly by maintaining a sensible tempo and playing with a wide dynamic range. Indeed, there were some intensely fiery moments in the middle of that movement.

Throughout the middle movement, a deeply spiritual essay, a moth flittered above the musicians. I thought “this must be the luckiest insect in the world”.  Hough daringly mixed harmonies with the pedal here, but the texture never became mushy. For the first time though, I noticed something troubling about Blossom’s acoustics: where we were sitting (Row F near the center), lower frequencies were nearly lost, so that the double-basses’ harmonic underpinnings were undermined.

The infamous “Blossom crack” was heard early in the third movement, but it only added to the proceedings. In the passages leading to the cadenza, the orchestral sound virtually exploded, and Hough’s presentation of the cadenza built upon that. The switch to major in the final bars brought about a catharsis that ended the concert. 

Before intermission, David Zinman brought out the humor of Prokofiev’s satirical Lt. Kijé Suite, which is adapted from a film score. The piece, a parody of bureaucracy, (Kijé essentially translates into “what’s-his-name”) is effectively orchestrated (including use of the saxophone) and has the piquant harmonic touches Prokofiev is well known for. Zinman is an economical conductor – he doesn’t flap his arms about or sway his body around to demonstrate his emotional involvement in the music. He lets the music speak for itself and concentrates on getting the best possible playing from the orchestra. That was the case both here and in the Brahms.

The concert began with Case Scaglione making his conducting debut with the Tallis Fantasia. The interpretation was unobtrusive, and the dynamics of this strings-only piece - which begins and ends with fade-in/fade-out effects - were very well handled. Of course, The Cleveland Orchestra could probably play this work in its sleep. The true test of Scaglione’s skills will lie in what he can do with a less gifted orchestra.

During the Prokofiev and Vaughn-Williams, I noticed an older second- violinist, who seemed so casually at-ease with his instrument as he gently swayed back & forth to the music - it looked as if playing the violin was the most natural thing in the world. As someone who briefly and unsuccessfully tried playing the violin, I can assure you it’s not. 

After the concert, I remarked to Daniel that we should go to concerts more often (as it is, we attend about three times per year). With so much war, strife, chaos, and political infighting, Harry Truman’s quote haunted me for the rest of the evening.


Anonymous said...

I was in Row H in front of the keyboard and didn't notice any particular problem with insufficient bass. I liked the Brahms performance, but I thought the Prokofiev was rhythmically slack (I'd listened to Szell's recording recently). Now that Blossom bang--I didn't hear it. And I thought the problem had been resolved some years ago when they changed some of the bolts or other parts in the roof. BTW, Hank, I might not agree with your review, but you write a lot better than Zachary Lewis!

Anonymous said...

Further remarks: There are a number of excellent recordings of this concerto. My favorite is a live performance by Moravec that's hard to find:

I also think Fleisher/Szell/Cleveland is excellent and not hard to find. Historically, Solomon/Kubelik/Philharmonia is from 1947 but well worth searching for!

Hank Drake said...

Thanks for your comments, Anon.

I wonder if your seat location had something to do with the superior bass response. I was seated by the violas, which meant the double-basses weren't facing toward me.

The Fleisher/Szell recordings of both Brahms Concertos (and a lot of concertos) are excellent, imo. I have them in the Masterworks Heritage edition, and wish Sony would do a complete Szell/Fleischer box newly remastered from the best sources. (As if!) My favorite is Serkin's recording with Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburgh Symphony from the 1940s. I still have the original microgroove LP. But I was very impressed with Hough's performance. There were moments when I thought lightning bolts would shoot out of his eyes!

I would have mentioned them, and will probably do a post on recommended recordings at a later date. I only mentioned the Rubinstein recordings because his one with Mehta was the first one I ever heard (I mentioned his earlier, better ones to avoid Rubinstein's fans chasing after me with axes).

I think the softer sonority for the orchestra today is something that has been developing for a good many years - that sharp profile they had during the Szell years is not something I've heard from them lately.

perdido said...

The softer sonority seems to depend on who's at the wheel. Did you happen to see the Ravel/Debussy program last year at Severance conducted by Boulez? That was easily as sharply rhythmic and precise as anything from the 60s. I can't wait for the DG issue of the concerti from those performances (Laurent-Aimard).

And I wonder if the softer sonority will be in evidence during the (free) Bruckner 8 concerts next week. I'm going on 8/12.

I haven't heard the 1940s Serkin--much of his later work is sonically harsh, so I generally don't like it. But he didn't play that way in the 30s... On the Fleisher/Szell Brahms--the Masterworks Heritage IS a relatively recent remastering. Big improvement over the originals. The Beethoven concerto set has also been issued in remastered versions that make it less shrill and congested.