The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Maazel-ified Dvorak

This is a little late, but last Thursday I made my way to Avery Fischer Hall to hear the New York Philharmonic for the first time in a while. As usual, I made sure to get a seat right in the front (this case, second row), to avoid Avery Fischer's notorious acoustical problems. I didn't realize how long it had been until I sat down while the orchestra was warming up, saw all the familiar faces on stage, and thought, "Hey, I missed these guys." I have been to so many Philharmonic concerts in the past six years or so that I've grown accustomed to seeing those faces up there and, at least in the case of the wind players and lead string players, have even grown familiar with how they play. I think this kinship adds another dimension to the concert experience. It's really nice.

Lorin Maazel conducted. More on that a bit later.

The program opened with a predictably rousing performance of the Flying Dutchman overture. The orchestra's terrific brass section played those horn calls with great gusto. It's always a joy to hear Wagner's glorious music from up close and from a stage. In the opera house pit, obviously the music is put in its proper dramatic context, but you're not exposed as vividly to all the detail in Wagner's sound world. Great fun.

Following the classic programming plan of "short orchestral piece-concerto-big symphony," the next work on the program was the Walton Violin Concerto, featuring the Canadian James Ehnes as the soloist. It was the first time I had ever heard the piece, so I can't really comment on the performance, but I really enjoyed the work. It was surprisingly pretty, perhaps sometimes verging on the precious, but quite enjoyable. I'd like to see how it holds up under repeated listenings. As usual with Violin Concertos, the violin tended to get lost in the tutti. This should be alleviated in a recording. The advent of records was the best thing that ever happened to the violin concerto; it's as if composers who wrote in this formal somehow knew this technology was coming. Otherwise, it's hard to explain why they wrote them, the format just doesn't work that well in live performance. I can't think of a single violin concerto that could count as one of that composer's great works (I don't think Paganini wrote any great works). One possible exception could be the Saint-Saens no. 3.

After intermission came Dvorak's great Symphony no. 7, a brilliantly taut work inspired by Brahms' Third, but laced with Dvorak's Slavic sense of rip-roarin' fun. Here's where Maazel characteristically stepped into the fore. As is well-known, Maazel has a tendency to manipulate scores to an irritatingly great degree, inserting pauses, tempo changes, and other means of emphasizing Great Moments. Lorin, we know when the Great Moments are, we don't need you to point them out to us; and in fact, your manipulations make them less great. Maazel made his presence known almost immediately. After the low strings introduce the intense main theme, Maazel had the winds play their answer at a much slower clip. It was jarring and unconvincing, yet obvious what he wanted to say. "Note," screams the maestro, "how lyrical this same theme sounds slightly altered and played by the winds!!"

The worst part of the performance was the slow movement, which lurched and halted at every turn. It was fragmented and episodic, lacked a sense of flow. The playing was hesitant, as if the players needed to wait for Maazel's thumbs-up before starting any phrase... which they probably did. The first three notes of the scherzo were drawn out, a more witty and less annoying gimmick: the dancer holds his leg up and winks before diving into his number. The last movement was the best part, Maazel seemed more willing there to just let the music go.

In general, Maazel's interventionist style works much better in late Romantic and 20th Century works. For example, his performance of Bruckner's Seventh last year was absolutely thrilling, he held my interest at every note and drew a stupendous, rich sound from the orchestra. His Wagner (see above) and Strauss performances are also reliably enjoyable. These composers provide a broader canvas, leaving room for Maazel to play. And he is an excellent musician, so once allowed room, what he does with that space is usually convincing and exciting. On the other end, even he refrains from manipulating non-Beethoven Classical scores in the same way. Performances of Mozart's Prague Symphony and Haydn's Creation were an absolute pleasure. Buyer beware, however, for anything in between, from Beethoven to Brahms to Dvorak. Interesting, how in this respect he is the opposite of Masur, who was at his best in this repertoire, whereas his Bruckner, for instance, (in my opinion) tended to be ponderous and dull and his Mozart, well, non-existent (as far as I can remember, he left Mozart completely to guest conductors, especially Colin Davis).

As for Dvorak's Seventh, I cherish a recording that has been the subject of some scorn from reviewers and was out of the catalogue for many years before re-appearing recently: James Levine's performance with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival. The recording is very close and, at times, even a bit harsh, but I think this works perfectly for Dvorak. It enhances the folksy character and the dance element that is so important in Dvorak, but at the same time gives great weight and power to the Brahmsian tragedy in this particular work. The performance simply sizzles. The magnificent climax of the first movement explodes in your ears; I can't listen to it without jumping out of my seat, goosebumps and all. The same goes for the Ninth Symphony, which comes coupled with the Seventh. Check it out.


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