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ASO Triumphs with Obscure Schnittke Cantata – Nagasaki

Posted on: December 11th, 2014 by Art Leonard 1 Comment

I’ve had such a busy semester with legal developments that I haven’t been posting about the concerts, opera and theater that I’ve been attending for the Fall 2014 season.  A big stack of programs has accumulated, and sometime during the next few weeks I hope to catch up with some retrospective postings, since I’ve attended plenty of events that are worthy of comment.

But I decided to make an exception and post today about the extraordinary concert I attended last night at Carnegie Hall.  The American Symphony Orchestra directed by Leon Botstein presented a program titled “Requiem for the 20th Century.”  The 20th century is one that many people will say can never really rest in peace because of all the horrific things that happened during it, the millions slaughtered in wars, felled in epidemics and natural disasters, and so forth.  That aside, Botstein decided to put together three works responsive to that difficult century, and it made for a highly unusual and absorbing program.

The only purely instrumental piece on the program was the 6th Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), a British composer whose active career spanned the first half of the century and then some, since he was composing until the last year of his life.  The 6th Symphony was his first major work to be premiered after World War II, having been written during 1944-47.  It received its first performance by Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in April 1948.  The American Symphony Orchestra’s founder, Leopold Stokowski, recorded the piece with the New York Philharmonic in 1949, and that gripping performance has never been out of the catalogue very long since then.  (The most recent CD coupling I know pairs it with a recording by Dmitri Mitropoulos and the NYP of the 4th Symphony.)   V-W eschewed the idea that this was a “war symphony” or directly related to the war. Although he wrote his share of program music, he considered this symphony to be purely abstract music, but listeners and commentators were not willing to accept this, because its unusual structure suggested all kinds of extra-musical images.  The opening movement is noisy, turbulent, churning, although interspersed is a noble march-like recurring theme that sounds like a slightly more modern version of an Elgar Pomp and Circumstances march.  The scherzo, which comes third, features a jaunty saxophone solo.  The second movement is an ominous slow march that gathers tension several times and can’t help but invoke military images in the listener.  The finale, titled Epilogue (a favorite designation by V-W), is marked Moderato but feels slower, perhaps because of its evanescent tonal quality as it just sort of fades away at the end, not with the tragedy of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique or the dying gasps of Mahler’s 9th, but more like a gentle ascent to heaven, perhaps the best comparison being a much quieter version of the ending of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony.  V-W gave some hint of what he was trying for by quoting some Shakespeare: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded [by] sleep.”

I thought last night’s performance was exemplary in every respect.  Botstein set perfect tempi and the orchestra achieved miracles of virtuosity.  I can’t recall the ASO ever playing better than it played in the V-W 6th.  My concert-going companion remarked on this at intermission, and I totally agreed.  In fact, the last time I thought they had played this well was several years ago when they performed Vaughan Williams’s 4th Symphony in a program dedicated to British music between the world wars, back in the days when they were performing at Avery Fisher Hall.  Botstein and this orchestra have a real flare for middle-period V-W.  I hope we can expect Symphonies 3 and 5 from them sometime in the future.  I consider the 5th Symphony among V-W’s greatest achievements, but it is rarely played in the U.S.

Second up on the program was Gyorgy Ligeti’s Requiem.  Ligeti (1923-2006) was one of a handful of composers who became dominant figures in the second half of the 20th century, bursting through to the general public’s consciousness when filmmaker Stanley Kubrick used excerpts from his Requiem in the soundtrack of the film “2001 – A Space Odyssey.”  It was interesting to hear the entire piece, which doesn’t get played very much, probably due to its great challenges to both listeners and performers.  Ligeti went through phases where his music became more or less listener-friendly as he became intrigued with particular modernistic devices.  This piece emerged in 1965 during his extreme modernistic phase, featuring tone clusters and deep buzzing sounds from the chorus, and tortured lines with great interval leaps for the mezzo and soprano soloists.  The text he selected was a portion of the Latin mass for the dead: Introitus-Requiem aeternum; Kyrie; De Die Judicci Sequentia (Dies Irae etc.), Lacrimosa.  However, because of the nature of his musical setting, the text was only intermittently understandable.  The point of this piece is that the voices are treated like instruments, the text provides inspiration for the composer, but the listener could just as well ignore the actual words and follow the dramatic-emotional path of the music.  The performance sounded like it might have used a bit more rehearsing, as there were a few tentative spots, but overall it was highly effective.  The vocal soloists, soprano Jennifer Zetlan and mezzo Sara Murphy, coped skillfully with the extremes called for by the music, and the Bard Festival Chorale, prepared by James Bagwell, seemed entirely caught up in the challenge of Ligeti’s demanding vocal parts.

Finally, the great discovery of the program: Alfred Schnittke’s cantata, Nagasaki.  I was unaware of this piece before first hearing about this program, and had no idea what to expect.  I’ve got a fair number of Schnittke compositions in my music collection, but I have rarely heard anything by him performed live in concert.  The NYP has performed a handful of things in the time I’ve been a subscriber.  I’ve always found him to be a difficult composer to pin down, because over time his style of music went through many changes.  My biggest complaint in the past has been that I’ve found many of his works to be essentially incoherent as musical statements – elusive, without any strong apparent structure, and lacking in any kind of memorable melodic invention.  Nagasaki came as a complete surprise.  Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote it as a “graduation exercise” set by his teacher Evgeniy Golubev during his final year at the Moscow Conservatory in 1958.  Golubev assigned Schnittke to write a piece using a poem by Valdimir Sofranov about the bombing of Nagasaki at the end of World War II.  Schnittke cut up the original poem a bit and interpolated verses by two other authors to create a five-movement work for chorus and large orchestra with a solo mezzo-soprano part in the fourth movement.  As a student work it is quite derivative, and it predates all of the stylistic experimentation that characterizes his mature work.  In some ways it seems reminiscent of various early and mid-20th century composers.  Shostakovich, of course, as well as Prokofiev (especially Prokofiev of the Alexander Nevsky film score).  The final movement had, to me, a strong flavor of Miklos Rozsa, the Hungarian-born composer who made his greatest contributions as the write of epic Hollywood film scores.  I’ve read some comments on-line suggesting Orff’s Carmina Burana as an influence, but I don’t hear that at all.

In any event, I thought this was a tremendous accomplishment for a conservatory student and was in some ways the most interesting and absorbing piece on the program.  This is not to say that it is “better” in any respect than the V-W symphony or the Ligeti Requiem, each a masterwork in its own way.  The cantata is so different in style and execution as to make any such comparison unnecessary.  But it was a work that stood on its own.  I was impressed with the range of its moods, the skillful use of the orchestra and voices (especially percussion effects), and the strong melodic gifts that I don’t recall from his later pieces.  In some ways it sounds like Soviet Realism poster music, such as the Shostakovich 11th Symphon;, in some ways it reminded me of the Weinberg symphonies that have been revived lately (mainly on recordings).  Some post-concert checking showed that there is one commercial recording, by BIS as part of their on-going Schnittke series, and it is  currently out of stock at most distributors.  My first attempt to order a copy from a third-party distributor on Amazon brought me an email stating my order had been cancelled because the vendor who listed it had failed to notify Amazon that it was out-of-stock.  I just ordered from another third-party vendor on Amazon and have my fingers crossed, because I would like to get a chance to become better acquainted with the piece.

Botstein, mezzo Sara Murphy, the Bard Festival Chorale (James Bagwell, director) and the ASO played their hearts out in this piece.  It was like they really believed in it, were delighted with their discovery, and were eager to share it with an audience for whom it would be a genuine discovery.  This was a “wow” performance, and I wish there were some way that they could release the concert-recording (the ASO records their Carnegie Hall concerts for internal use and some on-line distribution) on a commercial CD.  Or perhaps interest a record company in doing a studio recording.  The work deserves exposure.

Leon Botstein generally wins acclaim for his imaginative programming and brickbats for his conducting, but I thought last night that he had achieved truly fine performances of three difficult pieces and I could not find any fault with his conducting on this occasion.  Indeed, he had the entire large ensemble, with chorus and soloists, playing at the highest international level, and he seems to have inspired everybody involved to perform above and beyond expectations.

Bravo!