The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Friday, January 12, 2007

Rite of Spring, and some other piece

It's Zubin Mehta week at the Philharmonic, apparently, and I got tickets to both of his programs. Not really because of Mehta, they happen to be good programs.

So Tuesday was the Rite of Spring, one of the most stupendous works to hear live. Although relatively popular for such a daring, still modern-sounding work, the place would not have been so full had the orchestra not also been playing Beethoven's Violin Concerto, one of the most inexplicable works in the core repertoire. I think this piece is a true turkey. Perhaps not on the level of Wellington's Victory, the Choral Fantasy, or Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, but when you consider the ratio of quality to frequency of performance, this piece tops them all. And when I say "them all," I mean all pieces ever written. Beethoven's Violin Concerto is astoundingly banal.

And yet, it packs the house! One reasons seems to be the strange, disproportionate popularity of violin concertos and violinists in general. I don't really understand why this is, for several reasons: first, the idea of a solo violinist on stage is not terribly novel -- in any orchestral work the stage is already mobbed with violinists; second, in a related story, the format just doesn't work very well, instrumentally and sonically speaking. The violin gets drowned out by all the other stringed instruments. Recorded sound was the best thing to ever happen to the violin concerto, as now the instrument can be closely and artificially enhanced. Third, the violin can't play with near the complexity of the piano, for the simple reason that it can only play at most two notes at once. That's a full eight fewer than the piano!

Beethoven's concerto wasn't particularly helped in this performance by the ponderous pace Mehta took, especially in the first movement. It just plodded along. The highlight was the cadenza, which was not Beethoven's but Kreisler's, played by Pinchas Zuckerman. It contained an almost Bachian simulation of counterpoint, very cool.

The finale had some energetic moments, and that one glimmer of beauty, the unexpected melody played by the bassoon. The bassoonist was busy that night, between that melody and the famous, opening to the Rite of Spring.

In fact, I thought the bassoonist milked that opening too much, reeeeeeeeeally drawing out those first few notes. It was a bit much. In general, I thought the performance was a little too romanticized and gushing. The real genius of Stravinsky is in the rhythms, and to really bring out his incredible rhythmic effects, the piece should be played sharply, with jagged, pointed phrases. Mehta seemed to be treating the work like a Strauss tone poem.

So of the three performances I've witnessed (that I can recall offhand), this was probably the least (the other 2 were Eschenbach conducting the Philharmonic, and David Robertson conducting his Lyon Orchestra). But it was still an absolute joy to hear, and when this orchestra plays big, it's a magnificent thing. What band would I rather hear beat out those incredible brass choruses? A feast for the eyes and ears.


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