A Romantic Musical Weekend: Szymanowski & Mahler, Chopin & Granados

My concert listening this weekend was firmly grounded in the Romantic movement.  On Saturday night at the New York Philharmonic, I heard performances of Karol Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1 and Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4, two gorgeous late-romantic effusions.  Then on Saturday afternoon I heard Garrick Ohlsson play a selection of pieces by Frederic Chopin and Enrique Granados, thus bridging from the early days of musical romanticism to its final gasps.  (By interesting coincidence, the Granados pieces date from the year of Mahler's death.)

The New York Philharmonic performances last week marked the conducting debut here of Daniel Harding.  Already well-established in Europe and much recorded for one so young, Harding was quite impressive in this debut, at least on the third rendition of the program Saturday night.  (The NY Times critic, who attended the first performances of the program on Thursday, noted various imprecisions, perhaps attributable to the musicians and conductor still figuring each other out.  To judge by Saturday's performance, that process had considerable advanced as they performed together on Thursday and Friday.)  Philharmonic concertmaster Glenn Dicterow played the solo in the Szymanowski concerto, and soprano Lisa Milne, also making her NY Philharmonic debut, sang the final movement of the Mahler symphony. 

The Szymanowski concerto reflects the strong infatuation with Middle Eastern culture that absorbed the composer for much of his career.  Szymanowski set Arabic love poetry and studied the folk music of that part of the world, incorporating it into many of his compositions.  Anybody coming to this concerto without prior experience, thinking that the provenance of the composer would signal Polish or other Eastern European folk elements, must have been quite astonished.  The work is in one prolonged movement, and sounds rhapsodic in nature, flitting from one mood to another, sometimes without any real transition, heavy on the languor!  The solo part calls for a big, piercing tone that can transcend frequently-heavy orchestral accompaniment.  Although I think Dicterow cares a lot about this piece, which he's played with the Philharmonic in the past, and he is a very fine concertmaster, I didn't think he had a big enough sound to project above the din at times.  Maybe we are spoiled by recordings, where the sound engineers can play with the balances to assure that a soloist will be heard, and this concerto is played infrequently enough in the U.S. that even avid concertgoers are unlikely to have heard many live performances, so our expectations are molded by hearing recordings.  The orchestra sounded truly spectacular much of the time, and Harding kept the forward momentum, usually avoiding the stasis that can affect this work on many of the recordings I've heard.

The Mahler 4th is the briefest of his 9 completed symphonies, and also has a reputation of being the sunniest and most open-hearted, but Harding hears and projects the angst beneath the smiles.  I've rarely heard the second movement played with such a sense of macabre humor, abetted by Associate Concertmaster Sheryl Stapels' athletic playing of the "mistuned" solo part.  The third movement was moving beyond words, with Harding exerting splendid control of the long-drawn-out ending.  He continued to cast his spell through the fourth movement song, drawing out the quiet ending to such great effect that there was a prolonged silence — longer than I think I've ever heard at a Philharmonic concert — before the outbreak of ecstatic applause from the audience.  I've never heard such a profound sound of silence in that hall as I heard at the end of the Mahler symphony, which was in its own way an extraordinary tribute to the musicians.

LIsa Milne sang with great feeling, but from where I was sitting (2nd tier boxes, front right) not to much effect, since she could barely be heard at times.  I don't fault Harding for that, as my experience suggests she probably could be heard much better at floor level in mid-orchestra.  Avery Fisher Hall has quirky acoustics, and is also too big a hall for all but the biggest unamplified voices.  The entire orchestra played spectacularly well, but I would especially single out principal horn Philip Myers, whose big, exposed solos were played with absolute confidence and great tonal warmth.

I hope the Philharmonic brings Harding back again soon, and for a longer stint.  Three performances of one program are barely enough for conductor, orchestra and audience to become acquainted, and this is a conductor worth cultivating for the future.

Garrick Ohlsson is a long-time favorite of mine.  As a freshman at Cornell in 1970, I heard one of his first U.S. performances after his triumph in the Chopin Competition, and I have heard many performances since then, including prior appearances at Peoples' Symphony Concerts.  I especially remember some terrific Copland performances in connection with the composer's centenary in 2000, both at a Peoples' Symphony recital and with the Philharmonic as piano soloist in the concerto. 

This afternoon's Town Hall recital had an oddly-restricted program. The first half was entirely devoted to short works by Chopin, the second half to four movements from Granados' Goyescas (out of the seven movements of the complete suites the composer published under that heading).  The contrast of the two composers was quite interesting.  Each embraces national characteristics of turns of phrase and dance rhythms in his music, and they both write in a florid rather than bare style that requires a very fluid, naturally flowing technical address, yet the pure sound of their music is very different. 

I thought the second half of the concert was more successful than the first half.  Ohlsson assembled a brief Chopin conspectus of short form pieces, beginning with a nocturne, then a clutch of five etudes, then a polonaise, a mazurka, and a scherzo.  Although this selection of different pieces might provide a great contrast of moods, I heard more similarity than contrast, and although the technical finish was of a high order, I found the playing rather restrained and matter-of-fact in its effect.

After the intermission, I felt a complete change in the pianist.  The Granados pieces had the swagger and flash that I found missing from the Chopin.  The pianist selected and ordered four pieces in a way that made up a quasi-sonata: a long opening movement, a shorter follow-up (both of moderately fast tempo), then the slow, romantic "Maiden and the Nightingale," and concluding with the fast-paced El Pelele, written by Granados as a postlude to the collection.

Ironically, the encores — two Chopin waltzes — had the swagger and flash of the Granados, and struck me as the best Chopin playing of the afternoon.  It was as if the pianist felt constrained by the formally programmed pieces in the first half to be on best behavior, but felt free to "let his hair down" for the encores and really have fun with the music.

Ohlsson's playing of the Granados pieces reminded me that I have some recording collection updating to do, as the only complete recording I have of Goyescas is the old de Laroccha recording for EMI from early in her career.  These are marvelous pieces, and it's time for me to get recordings in good modern sound.

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