Davies Hall San Francisco
May 30, 2015
The San Francisco Symphony
Charles Dutoit, conductor
Gautier Capuçon, cello
Stravinsky – Jeu de cartes (1936)
Elgar – Cello Concerto in E minor, Opus 85 (1919)
Mussorgsky-Ravel – Pictures at an Exhibition (1874/1922)
It’s hard to recall a time when Stravinsky’s music carried with it the suggestion of impossible modernism. But it did—once. The appearance of Petrouchka on TV in 1960 made the viewer feel quite daring, I remember. It was “dissonant.” And the Rite of Spring, with all those purpose-led insect lives and braying jurassic fossils was just plain intimidating. Little did we know then that dinosaurs were merely large chickens and Stravinsky himself, if not exactly a pussycat, then about as threatening as a Russian wolfhound on Stupid Pet Tricks.
I thought of this, as I kept finding myself smiling through Jeu de cartes. Of all middle-period works, this one hearkens back the most to The Rite of Spring’s relentless rhythms. But just as you think frenzied native dancers are about to boil you for dinner, pith helmet and all, the music bursts into Rossini’s Barber of Seville or La Valse, and you know you’ve been had. And of course, how appropriate! That’s what card games are all about.
When you mouth the words “Faites vos jeux. Rien ne va plus,” you have the croupier’s last call. That phrase fits exactly the fanfare opening of the piece, in the same way the words “Gone with the Wind” fit Steiner’s tune. If you wonder why the croupier is so loud and belligerent, well blame it on the Germans! It seems the betting-table staff in St. Petersburg were Teutonic and rather definite in tone!
Jeu de cartes fascinates me for its ability to take traditional harmony and tweak it without overthrowing anything. It revels in wit and fast moving irony. It’s less lugubrious than Orpheus and bouncier than Fairy’s Kiss. And though Apollo surely moves beyond all the ballets in terms of sweetness and emotion, none of the middle-period music is as zesty and full of life as Jeu de cartes. My take, anyway.
The Stravinsky performance was everything one could wish. Charles Dutoit was certainly in the right spirit for the piece. You can always tell when Dutoit likes what he is doing. He gets kittenish and courtly and demonstrably Francophone, as he preens and bows over the concertmistress. He looks as if he is about to ask for a dance. Dutoit has apparently suffered a shoulder injury, though, which limits conducting movement to his right forearm and wrist. He now gives all large gestures from the left. As the piece opened, he looked like a New Yorker hailing a taxi with a bottle of brandy tucked under his arm.
This time, though, his demeanor onstage was also inadvertently amusing. Dutoit tends to slick back his hair before going onstage. Indeed, each time I see him, it seems to define the “new black.” Be that as it may, this time it was, shall we say, rather long? As the evening proceeded and I viewed Dutoit from this angle and that, it struck me that a resemblance to (the former and transitional) Bruce Jenner was…well…astonishing!
If one can recover from this perception, Elgar’s Cello concerto, which followed, impressed—as it should—great work that it is. But I have a beef. Ever since Jacqueline du Pré made the piece her own in the 1960s and recorded it with her Elgar-whisperer husband, Daniel Barenboim, the concerto has been played mostly her way. It is as if her death froze the concerto into being as an icon in funereal mode. Oddly enough, the opening amble of the work in 9/8 meter was on Elgar’s lips at his deathbed. But I am irreverent enough to suggest that Elgar probably whistled it faster.
E minor is a very dry sounding key. It’s the sandpaper of sonority. As if embracing this, Elgar reduces his orchestration in the concerto to the bare bones. Indeed, as the piece proceeds, you experience exposed thematic strands far more than rich chords. (Intriguingly, Elgar backs away from this asceticism in the sketches for his Third Symphony. It may have been too unrewarding a way to compose.) But any performance which is too slow, and I’m speaking about the first movement, really, exacerbates all this. The piece croaks and lurches along awkwardly in nearly every modern performance. And too many scratchy attempts are made to squeeze tears out of the material. If you can count all the quibbles out, Capuçon did a nice job.
The most moving version of the Elgar Cello Concerto I know is available on YouTube for comparison. Anthony Pini recorded it with Eduard Van Beinum in 1950. It is smooth and fast and so sad you will cry. And the 9/8 moves along with a real lilt.
Mussorgsky’s Pictures is the sort of thing Charles Dutoit does as well as any conductor alive. And indeed, that is nearly all that needs to be said for the delivery this blockbuster received after intermission. The San Francisco brass were nicely rounded and the percussion, as always in this acoustic, as good as or better than that of any orchestra on earth. The persistent success of this piano work in orchestral transcription is a triumph not easy to repeat. We grudgingly accept the Brahms-Schoenberg piano quartet as an orchestral piece, even though pointless woodwind noodling betrays its origin at the piano. But Mussorgsky, fortunately for us, wrote blunt chords without much connective material and nearly none of the volume-sustaining passagework which marks a piano piece as “pianistic.”
Beyond this, the virtue of Ravel’s transcription is its understatement and purity. Other composers and conductors, notably Stokowski, have tried to fill the work in, but usually with vulgar results. Not every musician is a good painter, it seems. Many transcriptions are kitsch. But Ravel’s exhibition is a distinguished one. It’s the only one which doesn’t seem painted by the numbers.