The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
May 18, 2013
Schumann – Manfred Overture, Opus 115 (1849)
Brahms – Double Concerto in A minor, Opus 102 (1887)
Schumann – Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Opus 97, Rhenish (1850)
Marek Janowski – conductor
Arabella Steinbacher – violin
Alban Gerhardt – cello
It has been about a hundred years now since classical composers automatically turned to literature for inspiration. Walt Whitman was perhaps the last universal philosopher of the written word to appeal widely to musicians. Expansive, idealistic compositions by Vaughan Williams (A Sea Symphony), Delius (Sea Drift), Hindemith (“When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”) and many others are still vividly with us to prove the point… But in the decades since, our culture has veered off in realistic, therapeutic and scientific directions. Self-actualization of the dramatic sort depicted in romantic verse now seems naive and self-indulgent to us. We do not model ourselves any more on sweeping literary notions of heroism, duty and suicide. They embarrass us slightly. And this probably explains why one doesn’t very often come across Fountainhead Symphonies, featuring Howard Roark standing naked at the edge of a cliff, or tone poems devoted to Portnoy’s activities of self-discovery in the coat closet. Occasionally, somebody still thinks of himself with sufficient grandiosity to try pulling off a musical Hamlet or Macbeth, but these days we take it all with a grain of salt. Narcissism has migrated to opera, where it can become camp.
That said, it is only to point out that great 19th century literary references — and the literary titles to symphonic poems and overtures from the symphonic repertory — mean almost nothing to us now. Does anyone really care any more about Faust? Coriolanus? About Egmont? About Manfred? Doubtful…
“Manfred”, for them wot wants to know, was a Faustian creation of Lord Byron, who had just pretty much been run out of town for having begun an affair with his half-sister. It is a riff on guilt. Towards the end of the tale, Manfred commits suicide. This much is worth knowing, as it explains the pervasive gloom of Schumann’s “Manfred” Overture. Indeed, Brahms took grim cues from this work in composing his Tragic Overture (itself already a step removed from literature in its generality).
Musically speaking, though, the “Manfred” Overture is interesting for maintaining the long line of seriousness more successfully than in some of Schumann’s compositions. It begins with three chords profoundly off the beat. As it gets going, these syncopations move in a blurred fashion in the direction of Wagner’s notion of seamless melody, sublimating a lot of Schumann’s tendency to jump about with dotted rhythms, bouncing timpani and whooping horns. Indeed, halfway through the piece Schumann gives us a darkly sweeping melody on the celli, the real emotional core of the overture. Normally, he would have scored this for horns. Here it provides one an almost Brucknerian sense of depth, supported by heavy string tremoli. The most Wagnerian, brooding, performance of this I have heard is to be found on a CD made by Neeme Jarvi with the London Symphony Orchestra about twenty years ago. It accompanied at the time a good but not stellar set of the Brahms Symphonies on Chandos, but the Schumann overture performances were the thing.
At Davies Hall recently, Marek Janowski was commanding in a different way. There was no Wagnerian veneer on the performance, just beautifully judged balances and a fine sense of forward motion. Janowski is the sort of undemonstrative, nearly dour-seeming conductor, who sneaks up on you with the beauty of his music making. I enjoy him more each year with our orchestra. Indeed, the overture became gradually more gripping as it moved along, until you suddenly realized it had your pulse in a vise. I have never heard the San Francisco Symphony play Schumann with such fine balances before, nor with such intuitive ease in quiet passages. This last seems to escape with depressing regularity the orchestra’s performances with their Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas.
The Brahms Double Concerto, which followed, received a wonderful, visibly interactive performance from Arabella Steinbacher and Alban Gerhardt. Each ensemble phrase they threw themselves into seemed to jump electrically from eye to eye and glance to glance. They were impressively at one — Gerhardt with a rich gravelly tone and Steinbacher, gorgeous in plum sequins, swaying like a metronome to the larger phrases, roughening her tone just a bit to match.
All of this suited Brahms’ admittedly rather dry concerto. There is something raspy about A minor in this vein, and about E minor as well. (The Fourth Symphony’s finale can also sound a bit thirsty…) Even so, there was considerable vitality to the music in this performance. There are, however, not many emotional high points in it. The one I love most, which makes the experience worthwhile for me, occurs at the end of the first movement development section, where the cello and violin float up chromatically to land effortlessly in a sort of emotional catbird seat for a few moments. It was beautifully done here, as were the slow movement and Hungarian style rondo finale.
Some decades ago, B.H. Haggin made the astonishing suggestion that all Brahms’ chamber music was formulaic and hence not worth a great deal. His extreme comment had implications for Brahms’ other music, obviously. But Haggin did not sow followers in this vein, one notes with thanks, though the fact remains that Brahms was only a partially romantic composer. Where he lets go with ardor in his music, the concluding bars of his outbursts always pull back into a conservative phrase ending — almost as if Brahms kept seeing traffic cops in his side mirror and decided not to risk arrest…
Amid all this minor key gloom, I was glad to find my ears surging forward in E-flat, at last, after intermission. The “Rhenish” is a great masterpiece and as performed here, even more notable to say — beautifully orchestrated. (Schumann’s music has historically suffered from terrible “bullying” on the part of conductors, when it comes to orchestration. I once heard Erich Leinsdorf lead a performance, where the second movement was scored for woodwinds alone. Fortunately, those days are over.) Given Janowski’s ear for balances, none of those old criticisms about “doublings” and “thickness” had any meaning.
The piece surged forward at a good clip, but with plenty of room for elision and expression — rather like Kubelik’s way with the music on his Bavarian recordings. My only criticism concerned the first chord of the “cathedral” fourth movement. As almost always in live renditions, it sounded dry as cardboard — and about as palatable. This movement clearly evokes a reverberant ecclesiastical space (Cologne Cathedral), but surely in the concert hall, something could be done to splay out the first chord to suggest this. I’ve never heard it successfully done. Once past this point, of course, the rolling low brass make up for the lesser reverberant field of a concert hall and deliver an extremely evocative experience. Those wanting to hear it done right need only go to Bernstein’s 1959 CBS recording, performed in the very live space of New York’s Manhattan Center.
I come away from this concert thinking the San Francisco Symphony has done well to encourage Marek Janowski in his core repertory. In the 1980s Kurt Masur would come over each year and do the Beethoven Symphonies. It was wonderful training for the orchestra. In the Blomstedt era, these pieces were meat and potatoes. But in recent decades, under MTT, it seems the orchestra mostly performs Mahler and Copland and a great deal of brash music related to it in type. Sometimes one feels the players have forgotten how to do the central German repertory…
Under Janowski it becomes clear they haven’t.