Another Week of Amazing Concerts – Bostridge/Ades; Harding/NYP; Orpheus CO & Mayer

I seem to be having very good luck with concerts this season.  Again this week I have enjoyed three extraordinary concerts.  On Monday evening at Carnegie Hall, I heard a gripping program by two outstanding British musicians, tenor Ian Bostridge and composer-pianist Thomas Ades.  On Thursday, I heard another outstanding Englishman, Daniel Harding, conduct the New York Philharmonic in Deryck Cooke's performing edition of the sketches Gustav Mahler left for a tenth symphony.  And, tonight, I heard a typically enterprising program by the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, including a world premiere, a revival of an early 20th century classic, and some great 18th century music, with the participation of Berlin Philharmonic solo oboist Albrecht Mayer.  Quite a brilliant line-up!

Bostridge and Ades put together a program linked by themes of depression, loss of love, and the artist's alienation from society, according to the introductory passages in the program book.  Robert Schumann's lieder cycle, "Dichterliebe," Op. 48, was the centerpiece of the program.  Leading up to it, they presented John Dowland's mournful song, "In darkness let me dwell," a piano meditation on the Dowland by Ades called "Darknesse Visible," and Gyorgy Kurtag's "Holderlin: An…."  After intermission, Ades presented Franz Liszt's Sonnetto No. 123 of Petrarch as a solo prelude, followed by three of Liszt's lieder, and ending with several selections from the posthumous song collection by Franz Schubert, dubbed "Schwanengesang" by the publisher. 

This was an impressive and moving program.  I have been a big fan of Bostridge from his earliest recordings, including his initial go at Schubert.  I've especially enjoyed the high, clear sound of his voice.  Interestingly, I think as he is maturing as a singer his voice is settling a little lower in the tenor range; there seems to be a bit less of the higher, piping quality, and more depth and breadth to the sound.  (Or was it just where I was sitting in Carnegie Hall?  Dress Circle Row CC, under the overhang, where the higher pitches tend to be muted a bit.  I bought a single ticket for this concert, and unfortunately that's where I ended up, forgetting that the only really bad seats at Carnegie, in terms of sound, are under the balcony overhang, which should generally be avoided.)  Ades, much admired as a composer, is a highly accomplished pianist, in his own music and in challenging pieces like the Kurtag and Schumann.  At the end, they gave two wonderful encores: Caliban's Aria from Ades's opera "The Tempest," and — there had to be one real "chestnut" on this program – Schubert's "Serenade."

Daniel Harding has made a bit of a specialty of Mahler's 10th in the Cooke version, having recorded it with the Vienna Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammaphon (a recording worth importing from a European vendor if you can't find it from U.S. sources), and he leads a very convincing interpretation.  I attended the first of three performances, and I think the orchestra had not yet settled fully into the piece.  The program book informed that it was last played by this orchestra in 1984, and there has been sufficient turnover in the ensemble (and it is rarely enough performed) that this would be an unfamiliar piece to most of the musicians, although the NYP is certainly familiar with Mahler's style of writing.  Some of the familiar principal players were not present, as well, but the Philharmonic was generally in good estate Thursday night.

I thought that in the first movement Adagio the violins were resisting Harding's slow tempo in the early minutes.  Especially when the second violins entered, they seemed to be trying to push things forward a bit, as if they just didn't "feel" the music at Harding's pace.  But this was a momentary impression on my part, and it seemed that after a few minutes things became copacetic.  After that, I thought the performance went very well, despite some untidy ensemble at a few points.

here are a few places where Mahler's sketches narrow down to just a line or a bare two-voice counterpoint, and Cooke has been faithful to what is there, not claiming to have tried to "reconstruct" what Mahler would have done by adding much in the way of additional texture or embellishment, but instead taking the sketches as they were and giving them a Mahlerian instrumental dress without much elaboration (compared to some other versions that are more imaginative).  In other words, Cooke saw it as his task to let listeners hear the sketches in orchestral garb, without much pretense to more, and in this I think he is quite successful.

The piece does sound at all times like Mahler and nobody else, and it is a bit eerie to think that one is overhearing the private thoughts of a composer in the midst of composition.  Mahler's practice was to make many adjustments to his scores during the rehearsals for the first performance, and then more alterations through subsequent performances as he moved towards preparing his works for publication.  Sometimes the order of movements would be changed, sometimes there would be cutting or substantial recomposition, and he was constantly adding expressive markings, instructions to the conductor based on his experience of conducting a piece (like the caution not to slow down at a particular point, or to move briskly ahead, things of that type), accent marks, changes in orchestration, and so forth.  Since "Das Lied von der Erde" and the 9th Symphony had not yet been premiered when Mahler died (the last premiere he led of one of his symphonies was for the 8th, which he was preparing for the first performance in the early summer and fall of 1910 as he was sketching out his 10th that summer), what we have of all three of these works is essentially incomplete.  Other hands had to do the final editorial work for the premieres of Das Lied and the 9th and to prepare them for publication, and we can't know how Mahler might have changed them after the experience of performing them.  Even the 8th might be considered incomplete in this respect, since after the premiere he had to plunge into his final season as music director of the NY Philharmonic, a season cut short by his tragically early death in 1911.  Had he conducted more performances of the 8th, it stands to reason that he would have made changes, as he had done in his prior symphonies. 

So, much is left to the conductor's imagination in the way of interpretation, not having the kind of detailed instructions that Mahler left in his earlier published scores.  Harding set a tempo for the opening Adagio which struck me as slower than some others I've heard on records, but then this was the first time I've heard the piece live.  The performance ran considerably longer than the timing indicated in the printed program, which suggests that the annotator was going based on recordings and that Harding now hears parts of this piece considerably slower than in his VPO recording. No matter how many recordings one hears, however, even recordings of live performances, I feel I've not really heard a piece until I've heard it in person, live in concert.  So this was a great opportunity, and I'm glad I had it with such an inspired conductor and great orchestra.

The peak for me is the finale, and especially the last few minutes, which really sound like final thoughts of serene resignation.  When one treats the finale of the 9th Symphony as "Mahler's final thoughts," one is overlooking the fact that it was composed a few years before his death and that another entire symphonic expedition lay ahead.  With the 10th's finale, we have Mahler's real final thoughts, and they seem to be more optimistic than the ending of the 9th, which dies away and just sort of collapses.  While the 10th doesn't end in triumph, neither does it end in sadness, at least as I heard it, and if one were to interpret the end of the 9th as a signal that Mahler was moving towards atonal composition, the 10th seems to swing the pendulum a bit back towards more tonal harmony – but then, as noted above, these are sketches, and we can only speculate how Mahler might have altered the work first when orchestrating, then when rehearsing, then in response to his performance experiences….

Finally, tonight's concert by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.  They had an unusually early 7 pm starting time, which was explained by the extended speechifying that went on for the WQXR microphones.  It seems that tonight marked the 75th anniversary, to the date, of WQXR's first broadcast as a classical music radio station, and since WQXR broadcasts Orpheus's Carnegie series live, they thought it fitting to make a fuss.  I don't really object, but I thought four speeches excessive.  People came to hear a concert, after all, and with all the speeches, running until almost 7:15, the evening ended up stretching to 9:30.  To mark the WQXR anniversary, they had a sing-along of "Happy Birthday" with the members of the orchestra, which struck me as just a bit sappy. That out of the way, however, it was a magnificent concert in every respect.

They began with a lively rendition of Paul Hindemith's Kammermusik No. 1, Op. 24, No. 1, which called for a reduced ensemble.  Then soloist Mayer came out for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Andante in Bb, K. 315, composed for flute and "stolen" for oboe on this occasion most effectively.  Then came J.S. Bach's Concerto in A Major, BWV 1055, a score that survives as a harpsichord concerto, but is increasingly familiar in a reconstruction for Oboe d'amore, which is conjectured to have been its original form.  (Bach wrote quite a few concerti for violin or wind instruments that he subsequently adapted for harpsichord, and with the division of his unpublished manuscripts at his death among his three sons, much of his unpublished music was lost, unfortunately, as WF and JC did not do as good a job as CPE at preserving their father's materials for posterity.) 

Albrecht Mayer has made a few solo discs, but I had not previously heard his solo work, apart of course from whatever Berlin PO records I may have on which he is playing.  (And since the major labels that record the BPO don't usually include a list of orchestra personnel, that's a matter of guesswork.  But he's been with the BPO since 1992, so it probably includes most of the orchestra's digital recordings.)  His playing is very smooth, very articulate, both on oboe (Mozart) and oboe d'amore (Bach).  He had prepared two encores with the orchestra, both arrangements from vocal music: Reynaldo Hahn's "A Chloris" and G.F. Haendel's "Lascia ch'io pianga mia cruda sorte" from the opera "Rinaldo," both stunningly played.

After intermission came the world premiere of a work commissioned by Orpheus as part of its own 40th anniversary celebrations: Andrew Norman's "Apart, Together," which turned out to be an essay in orchestral textures, athematic but very involving with its shifting harmonies and use of unusual techniques to produce odd sounds from the orchestra.  Norman's youthful photograph in the program book suggests he is at a very early stage in his composing career, but the notes indicate he has had quite a few impressive commissions from major orchestras already.  I have not previously come across his music, but now I'm intrigued and hope to hear more.  This was certainly an auspicious premiere.

The evening's finale was Josef Haydn's Symphony No. 103, the "Drumroll" symphony.  Nobody plays Haydn today with quite the flair and chamber-music flexibility of Orpheus.  They are a collection of stunning virtuosi down to the last desk, and this really pays off in Haydn symphonies, with their bustling finales and challenging wind solos.   The principal clarinet seemed very close to coming to grief in the treacherous "trio" section of the Menuetto (drawing forth a devilish smile from the second oboist sitting next to him – perhaps in appreciation of the challenge of rendering the passage smoothly), but he got through it in style, and the entire orchestra seemed supercharged in the final measures of the piece.

The next concert in Orpheus's Carnegie series will bring pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet for Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto, which should be a real treat.  That's on February 11.  In the meantime, they are taking off with Albrecht Mayer for a European tour with this program.

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