The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Anti-Maazel?

The BSO paid one of its regular visits to Carnegie Hall on Monday to perform Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony no. 1 and, of course, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. My hunch tells me it was the latter piece that brought droves of people in line for partial view rush tickets earlier in the day.

As an aside here, how strange is the unique level of popularity this piece holds? Obviously, it's a wonderful work. But there are so many works that are just as great, and arguably many that are even greater, even by Beethoven himself. Given the choice, I'd rather hear the Missa Solemnis (if the choir was up to the task), but no such line would have formed for that work. It would at least make sense, even if it would be unfortunate, if NO piece of classical music attracted that kind of crowd to Carnegie. But once this mob appreciates the greatness of the Ninth, aren't they just a bit curious about what joys other similarly transcendant works might hold for them? As a kid, I got to know a few pieces of music from my parents playing them in the car. I loved a few of them. And sooner or later, I got curious: if that's great, what else is? Why aren't more people asking this question? I really have no idea. I suppose one answer is that people are simply lazy; it took no effort to become familiar with the Ninth -- or at least with the finale -- because it's so ubiquitous, and to become familiar enough with anything else as great would require the repeated listenings that a song by U2 does not. But I'm just not satisfied with that answer. Anyone who can crack this puzzle can save classical music.

Anyway, as for the performance, Allan Kozinn's review in the Times did a good job summing it up. It occurred to me during the performance that it sounded a lot like a von Karajan recording -- relatively fleet, unfussy, but lush and thick at the same time. Kozinn notes that the phrases seemed "clipped." I think this is an interesting way to put it. In fact, Janowski merely pressed on, keeping strictly to the beat even in the first movement, where we are so used to certain phrases "breathing," to certain moments being suspended before the next dramatic episode, that when this does not happen the music seems "clipped." If these conventions of phrasing had never developed, we would never have given Janowski's reading a second thought. He would just be following the score and its steady rhythm. After this performance (the first time I've ever heard Janowski), I'm inclined to think of him as the anti-Maazel.

As for the singers, it's hard to even hear the women in Beethoven's notoriously clumsy vocal scoring ("he can't write for the voice," my singer-father grumbles). The tenor had an odd voice; he sounded almost like a baritone with an unusually wide vibrato. The bass was very bass-y indeed; his name (Albert Dohmen) was familiar to me but I couldn't place it. As soon as he started singing, however, I knew what role I heard him sing: Gurnemanz, that role always sung by that very particular kind of deep voice that's difficult to describe. If you're familiar with Parsifal, you know what I'm talking about. The Tanglewood Chorus -- and I have to be careful here, I have a relative therein -- was just too big. It was kind of overwhelming and lacked transperancy. Beethoven's vocal music can easily sound shrieky, and having an oversized amateur (I mean this in the technical sense) chorus usually doesn't help.

Of course, I'm nitpicking; the performance was overall a joy, terrifically exciting. As it always does, my heart started racing, triple-speed, at the buildup to the coda, and didn't calm down until after a couple of curtain calls.


Anonymous Gert said...

I think the aggregation of people who love Beethoven's 9th disaggregate into people who may to go other Beethoven, or other choral works, or operas. It's not necessarily that the B9 lovers don't go to anything else but more that most of them don't go to everything else. Mind you, I've booked to go to Beethoven 9 on conswcutive evenings in April, but that's because I'm in love with Gerald Finley.

2:32 PM  

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