A Weekend of Musical Contrasts: Tallis Scholars Christmas Program & ASO Busoni/Liszt Concert

Once again I had a weekend with sharply contrasting musical experiences.  On Saturday night, I attended a program presented by the Miller Theatre at Columbia University Early Music Series, The Tallis Scholars in a program titled "Songs of May: A Christmas Celebration," at the appropriate venue of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in the Times Square neighborhood of Manhattan.  Then on Sunday afternoon, I attended the American Symphony Orchestra's program titled "Parallel Lives: Liszt & Busoni" at Carnegie Hall.  More dissimilar programs would be hard to find!

The Tallis Scholars, led by their founder, Peter Phillips, is among the best groups in the world for Renaissance polyphony, their obsessive focus in their recording program.  Thus, it was particularly interesting to hear them in a program that departed from the usual narrow focus to include two 20th century works, Magnificat & Nunc dimittis, by Arvo Part (b. 1935), and Hymn to the Virgin, by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).  This was not a radical departure from their normal repertory in the case of Part, since his liturgical compositions setting Latin texts are heavily influenced and inspired by medieval and Renaissance music.  In the case of Britten, however, the inspiration for this piece seemed to come mainly from English folksong.  Indeed, some of the harmonies sounded to me more like Warlock or Vaughan Williams than Britten's usual, more astringent, compositional style.  The Tallis Scholars were excellent in both pieces, although I was puzzled by their omission of one verse that was printed in the program book for the Britten.

The balance of their program came from their core repertory, beginning with a famous Christmas motet by a composer whom they have not favored on disc, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck: Hodie Christus natus est.  (This is probably Sweelinck's most-recorded vocal composition, showing up an classical Christmas anthologies without number.)  In the event, it proved one of the few pieces on their program that was marred by the acoustic of the church.  St. Mary's has enough resonance that any kind of fast-paced polyphony ends up sounding a bit of a blur.  The room is perfect for more slowly paced polyphony, as proven with John Taverner's Magnificat a 5, Robert White's Tota pulchra es and Regina caeli, Cristobal Morales' setting of the same Regina caeli text, the Magnificat quarti toni by Hieronymous Praetorius, and for a grand finale, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina's Magnificat & Nunc dimittis.  Phillips has a genius for picking appropriate tempi for these works, which lack any clear tempo direction in the written music, and he has promoted a style of performance that emphasizes clarity and directness, to the benefit of the music.  When this style comes into play in a space like St. Mary the Virgin, the results are quite magical.

Phillips provided an encore in German — a startling change from a program that was, with the exception of the Britten, all in Latin – and even the Britten interpersed Latin phrases with its old English main text.  Johannes Eckhardt, a composer of whom I had never heard (and of whom Phillips had never heard, he announced, prior to planning this concert program), produced a very beautiful setting of the Nunc dimittis text.  That text is, of course, totally appropriate for a final encore in a concert.  ("Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace"; which was translated in the program book as "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.")  A little sly bit there by the subtle Mr. Phillips?

There was precious little subtlety on display Sunday afternoon in Carnegie Hall, when Leon Botstein and the ASO tackled the mammoth Piano Concerto in C, Op. 39, by Ferruccio Busoni, and "A Faust Symphony" by Liszt Ference (Franz Liszt).  Piers Lane was the intrepid piano soloist, and tenor Ryan MacPherson sang brief solo passages in the finale of the Liszt.  Men from the Collegiate Chorale Singers provided the brief choral moments in both pieces.

Busoni's Piano Concerto has failed to enter the active repertory for a variety of reasons.  It's too long for comfort – five movements running well over an hour, probably making it the longest piano concerto by any composer whose name is likely to be recognizable to knowledgable lovers of serious music – and the paucity of interesting or memorable thematic material to sustain such an extended composition doesn't help.  The chorus sits around for more than an hour before they get to make their brief contribution; sitting around for about 45 minutes in the Beethoven 9th palls next to this, because the Beethoven 9th is full of interesting things.  I espied with my opera glasses many choristers who were struggling to keep their eyes open during the Busoni!  The only movement of the five that really sustained my interest was the 4th – All'Italiana – which seemed to be comprised of every cliche from movie soundtracks illustrating stories taking place in Italy that one could imagine – except for good tunes.  Much of the movement was given over to a tarantella-like style – rapid triplets coursing all over the keyboard – but any thematic interest was notably absent.  My idea of a coherent piano concerto tarantella movement is the final movement of St. Saens' 2nd Concerto, but that one has tunes galore.

In the program book, a brief interview with pianist Lane asked what "tricks" he might use to memorize such a mammoth concerto.  His response: "The only trick used is not to play it from memory!"  And, true to his word, he had a score and a page-turner sitting next to him.  Lane pointed out that the pianist does need to memorize the piece in order to play it, but "there is no special point in performing it from memory," and he pointed out that Busoni's work is really more of a symphony with an active piano part rather than a piano concerto – further confirming my view that the piano is not given any interest tunes to play or develop, just lots of figuration, repeated ad nauseam.

The Liszt symphony is a horse of a different color entirely.  Although it is also repetitious and overly-long, at least Liszt does come up with some good tunes, contrasts of mood, and thematic development.  He's also a much more interesting orchestrator than Busoni.

Since this is an anniversary year for Liszt (who was born Oct. 22, 1811), there is much talk in the musical press about reassessing his significance as a composer.  For a long time he was relegated to the third rank or lower, although there was grudging acknowledgment of his key role in establishing the symphonic poem as an accepted form of orchestral music as well as the breakthroughs in piano technique he accomplished.  But Liszt was mainly credited with non-compositional achievements: inventing the modern piano recital, for example, and as a conductor promoting the work of more recognized composers such as Wagner, Berlioz, and Saint-Saens.  I would agree with those who say that Liszt has been underrated as a composer, but I wouldn't put him in the first rank.  His judgement regarding compositional length was faulty, and all too often he builds his music to a point where you need to have a really memorable conclusion but he falls flat.  He keeps the chorus waiting more than an hour in his Faust Symphony, and when they finally enter, some having dozed off in the interim, what he gives them to sing is not nearly as interesting as the occasion would warrant.  (I find Liszt generally an indifferent composer of vocal music.) 

It remains to comment that Botstein and the ASO put forth a super effort on Sunday to present these two challenging pieces in their best possible light.  The orchestra players must have been exhausted by the time the last movement of the Liszt arrived, but they continued to play with great enthusiasm through to the end.  Botstein favors longer concerts than the norm, this one running from 2 to about 4:45, but his performing forces seem to be up to the challenge.  The next concert in this series, "Stravinsky Outside Russia," should be fascinating.  Carnegie Hall: January 20.  Be there!

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