Monday, January 14, 2013

How Absolute?

What is Absolute music?  How separate and distinct is it from Program music?  Is there a connection between Absolute music and the outside world?  Or is music just notes hanging in the air, separate from reality?

These were the questions I pondered after Saturday night’s Cleveland Orchestra concert at Severance Hall.

The program consisted of two works, both Russian in origin, but so different they sounded like they came from different universes. 

The opening piece was Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto, featuring Garrick Ohlsson as soloist.  For over a century, the work has existed in the shadow of its more famous predecessor, the First Concerto.  This doesn’t mean the Second Concerto is of lower quality, any more than Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto is weaker than the Second Concerto (and it’s worth noting that the Third Concerto is now the most popular among Rachmaninoff’s works in the genre).  I have fond memories of Ohlsson’s performance of Busoni’s mammoth piano concerto (over 70 minutes long, in five movements, with a choral finale) while on tour with the Cleveland Orchestra in Boston over 20 years ago.  Decades later, it stands as a stunning feat of virtuosity coupled with robust musicality.  Since then, he’s recorded a very fine cycle of Beethoven Sonatas and a complete cycle of Chopin’s music that, frankly, I’ve found to be a mixed bag.  Still, I had high expectations for this performance, which were somewhat let down.  Ohlsson was clearly on top of the work technically, despite it being new to his repertoire and a minor memory slip in the last movement.  But the fervency I heard years before in a performance by Zsolt Bognár, whose phrasing and rhythm imparted such depth into the score, were missing here.  The orchestra’s playing under Franz Welser-Möst on Saturday night was beyond reproach.  But the fact that Alexander Siloti’s arrangement of the second movement was used in place of Tchaikovsky’s original also weakened the whole for me.  I find it ironic that a conductor who’s very willing to program music like Bruckner’s Eighth symphony without cuts feels the need to adopt a sliced and diced version of a shorter work.

From the optimism and romance of the Tchaikovsky concerto in the first half, we were plunged into the bleak and terrifying Shostakovich Tenth Symphony.

The opening movement of the Symphony, which is mostly hushed, was interrupted by a continuous stream of coughing from the audience.  Cleveland is not immune to the flu epidemic sweeping the nation, of course, but whether from illness or for other reasons, it was quite aggravating to those of us who came to hear music rather than to be looked at.  The second movement, a brutal, martial piece, conjured visions of Soviet oppression.  While the Nocturne-like third movement was like an interrupted Romance – perhaps between the composer and his student Elmira – both of whom are alluded to in the score.  Welser-Möst was in great form here, holding the sprawling piece together masterfully and refusing the temptation to get past the bronchial afflicted audience by speeding up or raising the dynamics. The finale was greeted by a long and well deserved ovation. An acquaintance of mine derided the Shostakovich as “a bunch of noise” (grant you, this is the same person who hates Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto because it doesn’t have a cadenza).

Both the Concerto and Symphony were audibly and obviously composed in Russia, one could hear it in the orchestration and melody.  Yet they were spiritually poles apart from each other, and were reminders of the terrible things that happened to that country in the 70 years between compositions.  (Under Putin, I fear Russia is reverting to a Stalinist era.  Will the music reflect that?)  

No composer is completely divorced from the corporeal world around him.  The Bohemian influence is quite evident in Dvořák’s works.  Even the “New World” Symphony and “American” string quartet – which meld Native and African American melodies into their structure – retain a Czech flavor.  After Beethoven went deaf, his music evolved into an ever more spiritual plane.  But even in his most elevated works, such as the last piano sonata, the Ninth Symphony, and the last string quartets, there were still traces of the physical – the music still had the flavor of being in a Germanic/Austrian sphere.  Even the famous Ode to Joy has the hallmarks of a German beer drinking song.

So, even the most absolute music is not completely pure.

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