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There are a few tremendous pieces of music that I could happily hear live several times a year, every year of my life. Beethoven's Ninth is certainly one of them, and as it happens, I have already heard it twice in the last six months: once last night at Carnegie Hall, and once in June in San Francisco. Both performances were thrilling in almost equal measure, I would say, but they were very different in approach. At Carnegie, John Eliot Gardiner conducted his period-instrument Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and his Monteverdi Choir (I say "his" because he founded both groups) in a performance that was at once quicker, lighter, and quirkier than the more traditional San Francisco Symphony version. But the Ninth was all there nonetheless, and its peak moments--in particular, that final joyous movement in which the voices enter in, at first singly and then in full force--remained the kind of experience that one wants to go on having over and over again. I was deeply glad to be there, and so was the rest of the roaring, standing, vociferously applauding audience.
They lost me on the Grosse Fuge.
Last Wednesday, as I noted a couple of posts ago, the Belcea Quartet performed excellently if eccentrically in Beethoven's Op. 127 and 130. But now, in the final concert of their scheduled Beethoven series, those eccentricities moved to the forefront and began to consume their host. Modernism does not need to be exposed or discovered in the Grosse Fuge: the piece has enough discord, enough wildness, enough rhythmic disunity of its own, and when the Belceas' tendencies in that direction were super-added to it, the result was almost a caricature, a fiendish exaggeration. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Grosse Fuge I heard at Zankel Hall on Friday night was not, to my ear, Beethoven's.
But then they won me back with Opus 131. It was a fine, sensitive performance, with a few mild oddities of timing here and there, and an extra-harsh bowstroke or two (or three), but manifesting none of the destructive willfulness the Belceas had displayed before the intermission. The four string players were attuned to every subtle passage of this remarkable piece, and they gave full and complicated attention to the numerous transitions from intensity to softness to near-silence, from melancholy to resurgence and back again. Their playing throughout was filled with delicacy and emotion, and one felt at the end (as one should always feel with Op. 131, if it is done right) that one had been through something important.
And then they capped the evening with a lovely encore, the Ländler movement from Op. 135. As the violist said in his brief introduction, they were performing this as the encore for two reasons: "One, because we didn't get to do it the other night, when the concert was canceled. And two, because Beethoven at one point thought of ending his Opus 131 with this movement, so it seemed a fitting way to end the evening." The cellist then leaned over and whispered in his ear, and the violist added: "And also because we love this movement." It showed, in their moving and rigorously restrained performance.
Mother Nature appears to love President Obama. She sent him a tropical storm to ruin the Republican convention. When that didn't prove sufficient, she provided a hurricane to win him the support of Governor Christie and Michael Bloomberg (not to mention all the needy citizens who were helped with surprising rapidity after the storm). Finally, she delayed the cold, wet, snowy weather by a single day to allow east-coast Democratic voters, who are notoriously less weather-resistant than Republicans, to make it to the polls on Election Day.
She has not manifested the same fondness for the Belcea Quartet. The first of their three Beethoven concerts at Carnegie's Zankel Hall was canceled last Saturday in the aftermath of Sandy. Their second concert, which took place last night, required audience members to trek through a horrific Nor'easter (I know, it sounds quaint, but it is really just a massive dose of snow, wind, and rain, all mixed foully together) to get to the concert hall, with the result that Zankel was only half full.
This is a shame, since the Belceas are one of the most interesting young quartets to come out of Britain (or, for that matter, Europe as a whole) in recent decades. They are vigorous and at the same delicate in their approach. They have a strong feeling about the music they are playing, and they translate that feeling into practice. In last night's program--consisting of two remarkable late Beethoven quartets, Op. 127 and Op. 130--they manifested skill at every level. The quiet parts of Op. 127, in particular, were so entrancing that the audience seemed to be holding its collective breath; you could have heard a pin drop in the silences.
If Mother Nature has an excuse in her unfair prejudice against them, it would be because there is something, well--I hate to use this word, for fear it will be misunderstood, but-- "unnatural" in their approach. I don't mean this as a criticism, exactly, for the strangeness, the eeriness, is partly what gives their playing its strength. They are eccentric almost to the point of willfulness in their interpretations. The results are never outlandish--both 127 and 130 were recognizably themselves on Wednesday night, with all their usual delights--but the Belceas do something with timing and particularly with dynamics that makes the quartets sound like nothing you've ever heard in anyone else's recordings. In places these four players are the very opposite of cohesive: your ear finds itself picking up the underlying cello or second violin line almost as a separate theme you've never noticed. This is Beethoven's wild inventiveness pushed to its furthest extreme, the quartet as break-out music. Yet the result is not always violent: the Belceas' dynamic range is such that their quiet portions are surely the softest passages I've ever heard in these string quartets. At times you feel yourself leaning forward to catch the slightest puff of sound, and it almost disappears before you've heard it. The method is intriguing, even captivating, and it is certainly Beethoven; it's just not at all what anyone was expecting. That may be all to the good, but I will have to wait for Friday's performance of the tremendous Op. 131 to be sure.
(I realize, by the way, that in the course of these daily blogs I have become as much weather reporter as arts critic. I apologize, but it seemed unavoidable: the environment was just too overwhelming. Here's hoping that, in the final dozen or so days of my postings, the arts will fight back at full strength.)
Murray Perahia played at Avery Fisher Hall last night, in the first Carnegie concert since the hurricane. He was supposed to perform at Carnegie's Stern Hall on Friday, but the huge broken crane that has been dangling over 57th Street since last Monday night kept Carnegie itself closed, so the performance was moved to Sunday at Lincoln Center.
Perahia was a consummate, elegant musician throughout, neither catering to the audience nor ignoring them. Instead, he communed solely and fervently with the absent masters he had brought along with him in his memory and his fingers--Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven (the "moonlight" sonata, which for once didn't sound like a cliché), Schumann, and Chopin. The audience went wildest over the Schumann Faschingsschwank aus Wein and the two concluding Chopin pieces; I loved the Schubert best, not only the scheduled Moments musicaux, but also, and especially, the lovely Impromptu (Op. 90, No. 4) that Perahia performed as the first encore.
Like everyone else in the audience, I was delighted to be at the performance, but for me, given the events of the past week, it felt less like a normal concert than a metaphor about how fragile civilization really is. I suppose it will take me a while to recover from the feeling of being without power (in both senses of the word), but the useful aspect of that experience, for now, is that it gives an added lustre to everything that seemed routine before. Even the way the concert hall is lit and arranged now seems meaningful to me--that staunch, strong soloist sitting before us at his gigantic, unmodified, unelectrified instrument, projecting his sound out into the darkened realm where we listen in silence, warmed by his presence and the presence of all those around us.
The version of Brahms's Fourth Symphony that I play all the time on my iPod was recorded by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. I bought the CD after hearing them play all four Brahms symphonies a couple of years ago at Carnegie Hall--their magnificent performance blew all the competition out of the water and made my old recording sound flat. This is the version that is in my ear, and in my memory, and I am very happy with it.
But last night I got a sense that there could be two superlative versions of the Brahms 4, in some ways very different from each other. On Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall, Valery Gergiev led the adventurous London Symphony Orchestra in a performance that changed my feeling about the piece. (The first half of the program, by the way, was equally exemplary: Denis Matsuev in the First Piano Concerto. But about that I have nothing to say except "Wow!") Though the players are all excellent, the LSO feels like a slightly more anarchic, wild, untrammeled orchestra than the Berlin Philharmonic: strict cohesion has been replaced by something else that seems to work equally well. And Gergiev is a darker, moodier conductor than Rattle. The result is a scarier Brahms.
When you listen to Rattle and the Philharmonic play the Fourth, it is as if you are on a galloping horse, surrounded by a hundred other galloping horses all running on the same beat. It is thrilling and deeply pleasurable, and fun in the highest possible way. When you listen to Gergiev and the LSO, you are instead at the center of a whirlwind--a well-coordinated, finely tuned whirlwind, but a whirlwind that could nonetheless choose to sweep you up and smash you against a wall as easily as it could leave you in place. The Gergiev Fourth is thrilling, too, but it is a more unnerving kind of thrill. He is the only conductor I've encountered who can repeatedly, and consistently, make music feel dangerous.