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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Concert Review: It's a's a Plane...

It's Valery Gergiev, swooping into Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Valery Gergiev saves the day.
Original photo element of Mr. Gergiev © 2014 by photographer David Shankbone.
Image of Henry Cavill as Superman from the 2013 Warner Brothers film Man of Steel.
© 2013 Warner Brothers Pictures. Character of "Superman" © Detective Comics.
The life of a jet-setting conductor is sometimes like that of a comic book hero, called in as a last minute emergency stopgap to rescue an orchestra in distress. That was the case this week at Carnegie Hall, where Valery Gergiev and Fabio Luisi were called in as eleventh-hour replacements for Munich Philharmonic chief conductor Lorin Maazel in a pair of scheduled concerts.

Mr. Gergiev (who is scheduled to take over for Mr. Maazel in Munich next year) stepped off a plane at 11am Friday and conducted an orchestra rehearsal earlier that afternoon. On Friday night, he conducted the Munich Philharmonic in three works by Richard Strauss, a native of that city and a composer whose 150th birthday is being celebrated this year. The program featured two of Strauss' most successful tone poems: Also Sprach Zarathustra and Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, flanking the Burleske a one-movement piano concerto that is only occasionally performed.

On the Carnegie Hall podium, Mr. Gergiev maintained his unique conducting style. Flapping elbows for volume and waggling fingers for vibrato, he controlled the orchestra and drew a stirring response from the massed choirs of brass, timpani, strings and organ. The familiar Dawn music from Zarathustra (made popular in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey) resounded, leaving a  loud organ chord hanging in the air as it finished.. But once the Dawn had broken, the orchestra seemed to meander in search of a Nietzschean übermensch to lead it out of the murk.

That deliverance appeared at last, in the form of the second massed statement of the ascending theme--corresponding roughly to the recapitulation in the first movement of a symphony. This yielded to an eloquent solo for the concertmaster. With his bow taking the lead, the Philharmonic players launched into a herky-jerky parody of a Viennese waltz, achieving a lightness of texture that belied the massive orchestral forces at play in this movement.

The closing Nachtwandlerslied was perfectly balanced, with the thunder of descending brass contrasting with the twelve strokes of an enormous, full-sized orchestra bell. This was some impressive playing from the hard-working Munich forces, whose robust, warm orchestral sound substituted meaning for bombast. The piece ended on a delicate question mark, as Strauss presents the tonalities of B and C next to each other, simply refusing to resolve them in any way.

For the Burleske, the featured soloist was the redoubtable Emanuel Ax. This is Strauss' one-movement parody of a virtuosic piano concerto. Written in a scherzo form and anchored around a swirling, difficult piano part and a three-note motif played repeatedly by the timpanist. Mr. Ax unleashed a firestorm of notes as the work careened through a pastiche of ideas, referencing Liszt, Henselt, Thalberg and even Kalkbrenner. These are composers who staged a veritable 19th century arms race as they created a library of challenging, if sometimes vapid music for the piano.

Throughout Burleske, Strauss' parodies are tasteful, affectionate and even occasionally moving, saying adieu to the Romantic piano movement and paving the way for the century to follow. Mr. Ax handed all of these arpeggios, trills and cross-handed figurations with aplomb, looking pleased and a little relieved as this extremely difficult work came to an end. Greeted with a roaring storm of applause, he obliged the assembly with an encore of far greater musical depth: one of Johannes Brahms' sturdy Klavierstücke.

The concert ended with Till Eulenspiegel, with the massive orchestra and Mr. Gergiev gleefully recounting the misadventures of the legendary figure from German medieval folklore. Assisted by noble efforts from the principal horn and impressive solo work from the E flat clarinet, he led both orchestra and audience on a merry romp through this familiar score. Crack work by the large percussion section and the thundering low brass built to a raucous climax, in which Till's death (depicted as heavy chords followed by a strangled death-cry from the clarinet) were followed by a quick, cheeky reprise of the opening theme. As the work ended and the audience applauded for more, Mr. Gergiev stepped smartly off the stage. Superman had a plane to catch.

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