The best seat in the house? A review of the Minnesota Orchestra, Stephen Hough, Osmo Vänskä, Carnegie, 10/26/2011

We went out of town after this concert, so I’ve had a few days to think this one over.  And the thought uppermost in my mind is that a listener’s reaction to a concert is unavoidably based on things that have little to do with the performance–where they’re sitting, whether some maniac cut them off on the drive to the concert hall, whether they just hate this music, etc.  So how disciplined are we in judging a performance on its own terms?

I was wondering about this because for the first half, I was sitting about five rows back from the stage, staring at the musicians’ shoes.  Meaning, the sound was going literally over my head, seemingly dry and airless.  (Not to mention the effect of listening to a double string quartet with orchestral accompaniment.)  I could hear the pianist well–too well, too much jangling steel–when the brass might as well have been in Brooklyn.  I went farther back in the hall for the second half, and I was listening to a different orchestra.  There was also some Tea Party chatter in the row behind me before the concert started.  One of the chatterers then proceeded to snore through his or her nose for the rest of the first half.  I’ll try to filter all of this out.

First up was Tchaikovsky‘s Voyevoda–not the late tone poem, but a totally different piece, the overture to his first opera which he later withdrew.  No one would call it a masterpiece, but it was certainly effective as a curtain-raiser, with an opening horn solo played with a slight touch of vibrato, some tricky rapid-fire shifts in meter that were negotiated flawlessly by the orchestra, and a rousing coda.

Next, Stephen Hough performed a true war horse, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.  Hough has a reputation as a deeply intelligent musician.  He has championed neglected composers like Bowen, Mompou, and Hummel, has a popular blog, has composed piano music of his own, and is always articulate in writings and interviews (see this one on Tchaikovsky).  When he turns to more mainstream Romantic repertoire, he lightens the textures, quickens the tempos, and refuses to indulge in the habit of dawdling over cadences and climaxes–which many believe is echt Romantic interpretation.

At the start, I thought the horn section played at an even forte, not the usual blazing fortissimo, and the entire introduction was at an usually strict, quick tempo.  All tempos for the entire work were noticeably faster than the norm.  I was so close to the piano that I sometimes thought Hough was banging away percussively, but anyone sitting even a few rows back would have heard a crisp tone without the steely attack.  Throughout, he lent nuance to the playing through tone color and phrasing; his rubato was subtle and applied within a phrase, not a melodramatic slowdown at obvious points.  At the first movement’s main theme, a jerky tune with grace notes in the piano, Hough began by playing the grace notes slowly and evenly, turning them into true grace notes only a few measures later.  At a couple of places coordination between piano and orchestra was shaky, but these were fleeting moments in an otherwise flawless display of virtuosity.

Is this, in a sense, historically informed interpretation?  Have Hough and Vänskä stripped away layers of varnish, the mannerisms of 20th century approximations of Romanticism?  In the liner note to his Rachmaninov recordings, Hough wrote that he was striving to become “fluent in the pianistic language of that time” and recovering “flexible, fluent tempos” and “characteristic rubato.”  My impression is that he conceived those performances–and this Tchaikovsky performance–as recovering Romantic interpretive flexibility at the micro level, at the articulation of each phrase, while eschewing the habits of some 20th century interpreters to wallow at big climaxes while insensitively plodding through the rest of the music.  In this, I thought he and Vänskä were remarkably successful.  This performance had plenty of nuance, but was also irresistibly propulsive.  It realized both the nervous intensity of Tchaikovsky’s music and its classical elements–for Tchaikovsky revered Mozart above all.

Nevertheless, was something lost?  I’m not sure that the rapid tempos and clean timbres of the orchestra are inherently preferable to the raucous intensity of older recordings and performances, like Emil Gilels, André Cluytens, and the Orchestre National de la R.T.F. (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française) here in 1959.  Listen to those blatty French trumpets at 10:37 (they don’t sound like that anymore), and gasp in awe at Gilels:

In other words, I think this piece actually thrives on what some might call bombast.  I don’t think this is a question of taste, historical accuracy, or correct idiom, but rather of a wide range of expressive resources.  But let me be clear; I don’t think performances like that of Gilels and Cluytens invalidate Hough and Vänskä’s approach.  While the clean timbres and quick tempos may initially seem too lightweight, close listening to the actual playing reveals interpretive freedom on a very different level, revealing nuances in a piece that hardly lacks for performances and recordings.

Hough gave us one lovely encore, the Nocturne from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, which he dedicated to his friend, the tenor Robert White, for his 75th birthday.

In the second half came Nielsen’s Third Symphony, heard from a seat in the middle of the hall.  There have been stirrings of a Nielsen revival here in New York; Alex Ross published this piece in the New Yorker, and Alan Gilbert over at the Philharmonic has been programming his symphonies.  In front of Carnegie Hall before this concert, two people were handing out flyers for a Carl Nielsen Society of America.  One of them said to me: “Mahler doesn’t need a society anymore, but Nielsen does!”

Bernstein made a memorable recording of the Third with the Royal Danish Orchestra, and I was thinking of it after hearing Vänskä’s performance.  For it seems to me that Nielsen performances have been getting faster over the years, just as Bruckner performances have been getting slower.  Bernstein’s recording took slightly slower tempos than today’s norm, emphasizing weight and flexibility; his first movement lasts 11:41.  The pioneering Nielsen conductors of the 1950s and 60s also took this approach: Ole Schmidt, Sixten Ehrling, Erik Tuxen, and Jascha Horenstein all took between 11:13 and 12:14 for the first movement.  In contrast Vänskä, in his 2002 recording, blazes through the movement in 10:49.  (Blomstedt takes 10:35.)  Vänskä relaxes tempos in slower sections just as his predecessors did; therefore, the quicker sections are comparatively even faster than the timings would indicate.  (Of course there are exceptions; Schønwandt’s 1999 recording takes 11:41.)

The danger in this speed-up is that Nielsen’s harmonic and contrapuntal inventiveness might lapse into garbled incoherence or empty virtuosity.  That was my reaction to parts of Alan Gilbert’s performance of the Second Symphony last season.  Vänskä and the Minnesotans, however, succumbed to neither pitfall.  With expertly judged balance between sections, the orchestra lent the necessary weight to Nielsen’s pounding brass chords, rapid string figuration, and long string and woodwind lines.  Accompanying ostinati were played clearly without being unduly highlighted or spotlit, creating a sense of ceaselessly buzzing, teeming energy underlying the main melodic lines–a necessary trademark of Nielsen’s idiom.  The blend that I did not hear in the first half was beautifully evident in my new seat.

Even when performing chestnuts of the repertory, Vänskä and the Minnesotans are thought-provoking, and their advocacy of music within the repertory yet too infrequently performed is of inestimable value.  I would have been thrilled to hear Nielsen 3 even if the performance was lacking.  So much the better, then, that it was idiomatic, invigorating, and inspiring.

–The Highly Opinionated Companion

About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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