Unification News for October 1998

Fabulous Music in NYC

Music Review
by Simon Kinney-NYC

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, Friday October 9th, Conductor-Claudio Abbado, Soloist-Renee Fleming

Every superlative that comes to mind has already been used to describe the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic. Friday’s performance was no exception.

The flawless and exquisite performance of this mighty ensemble showed the time honored unity of its players.

Under the direction of its Musical Director, Claudio Abbado, the orchestra performed a pleasant blend of four great masterpieces; Schumann’s ‘Manfred Overture’, Richard Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs’, Debussy’s ‘Nocturnes’ and Ravel’s ‘La Valse’. As usual, Abbado conducted the entire program without the score and with complete mastery and sensitivity. His embracing, romantic, and self effacing interpretation is not only appealing for the listener, but orchestral musicians around the world have become enamored by his tremendous skill, and his love and humility in the face of art. This was most abundantly clear to me when I worked with him during his years as Musical Director of the Vienna Philharmonic.

The Manfred Overture established the unquestionable unity and tremendous poise of the Berlin Philharmonic’s string ensemble. Their dynamic range, while staggering, was only a prelude to the much more complex and delicate interpretation of Richard Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs’, with soloist Renee Fleming. Ms. Fleming’s performance was emotional and from the standpoint of musicianship very convincing. Her interpretation of this very difficult and demanding work showed her true colors as one of the world’s foremost sopranos, both on the opera stage and in the concert hall.

Only on one occasion have I heard a soloist take this final masterpiece of Richard Strauss’ and make it sound more perfect, and even then it is only from the standpoint of musicianship, not interpretation. The 1976 recording of Gundula Janowitz with Herbert von Karajan and this same orchestra is hard to beat. However, even this comparison is unfair, since live performance and recording are two totally different performance environments.

Ms. Fleming’s lush tone and interpretative ability, ended with the perfect expression of Strauss’ peaceful transition to the next world and his final question as to what lay beyond physical life.

From the decorative melismas of Germanic Romanticism, we were transposed into the world of the French masters, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

As a master orchestrator, Claude Debussy’s music demands tremendous interpretive ability to bring forth the true sensuousness of his work. Maestro Abbado managed to enlighten us with the veiled mystery of Debussy’s character, perhaps only one small degree shy of his magnificent reading of the preceding Richard Strauss ‘Four Last Songs’. The program ended with the exotic ‘La Valse’ by Maurice Ravel.

Once again Abbado and the orchestra shined in performing this exciting piece, colorfully illustrating the layered messages of Ravel’s wrestle with the impending world of atonality, and his desperate desire to hold eternally to the bastion of traditional tonal form as the basis of his communication.

Abbado’s use of tension in this work was palpable until the end, and left one and all in the audience begging for an encore. Obliging the audience’s exuberance, they performed the Berceuse and Finale from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite; a fitting end to a sublime evening of musical expression.

Carnegie Hall, Tuesday October 13th, Soloist- Daniel Barenboim, Piano

No matter what level of ability an artist may possess, one always gets the feeling that tackling Liszt on the piano is like taking on a large crocodile in swampland; you are bound to get swallowed up. Such a brave undertaking was observed by concert-goers on Tuesday evening to hear Daniel Barenboim, one of the world’s foremost pianists of the last thirty years,

tame the wild imagination of Franz Liszt’s ‘Anées de Pèlerinage: Première année, Suisse’, and the Sonata in B minor.

After taking a couple of movements of the ‘Pilgrimage’ to warm into the piece, Barenboim displayed stunning dynamic control and use of color in the beautifully lyrical ‘Pastorale’ movement. The following movement ‘Orage’ or thunderstorm, confronts the soloist with the almost physically impossible, which Mr. Barenboim handled with considerable bravura.

While his phrasing and musical expression in general are unquestionable, by the time we arrived at the final movement of this fifty minute colossus, I had the vague sense that Mr. Barenboim was not always completely engaged in Liszt’s extravaganza.

After interval, we were treated to Liszt’s most famous concert work, the B minor Sonata; once again a daunting task even for even the most sophisticated and experienced artist. This dramatic work, thirty minutes of deliberation and white heat, illustrates Liszt’s occasional experimentation of what is almost twelve tone music. This Sonata does not completely follow the standard pattern of Sonata form, which focuses on the development of a central theme, but rather takes up the cyclical idea of composition; changing through the metamorphosis of the original idea to return to theme in its original state.

Even in the best sense, Liszt’s music can be seen as the height of egocentric Romanticism. Robert Schumann, whom the work was dedicated to, greeted the work with silent horror when Liszt first played it for him.

Mr. Barenboim’s performance of this work was imaginative from the start, but it wasn’t until he reached the fugue half way through the work that I really felt he was thoroughly enjoying himself. It was at this point that I could hear strains of his tremendous Beethovinian style emerging from the densely wooded forest of Liszt’s overloaded psyche.

Mr. Barenboim screamed home at a tempo which compelled him to make ample use of the sustaining pedal, which for me seemed slightly on the heavy side. Nevertheless it made for exciting listening.

At the closure of the program he performed two encore pieces, both Schubert works, which in many ways was the most refreshing part of the program, and showed more clearly Mr. Barenboim’s fantastic interpretive ability in the face of music with true emotional depth.

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