Davies Hall, San Francisco
January 23, 2016
The San Francisco Symphony
Marek Janowski, conductor
Beethoven — Symphony No. 8 in F major, Opus 93 (1812)
Pfitzner — Three Preludes from Palestrina (1915)
Beethoven — Symphony No.4 in B-flat major, Opus 60 (1806)
Marek Janowski always brings a convincing German something to our orchestra. Polish born, Janowski was raised in Germany and reigns at the Berlin Radio Symphony — indeed is known throughout Europe for his Wagner, Bruckner, Schumann and Beethoven. He’s even managed to elicit convincing Bruckner from the Suisse Romande in Geneva — that alone surely worth some nation’s Legion of Honor — and every so often does the rounds instructively with us. This time Pfitzner was the centerpiece.
Janowski differs from many current German music specialists in skirting the extremes of historically informed performance. He prefers rounded sonorities over spiky ones and was always an unlikely candidate for tin-can string sound. I noted with amusement in 2011 that he performed Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony in a traditional manner — but with our orchestra reduced to about sixty players. That was as much bow to revisionism as he seemed prepared to make. This time around, Janowski had a vast orchestra onstage for the Fourth and seemed to care not a whit how big it sounded — as massive as Karajan’s. Fortunately, his way with it was swift and energetic. Still, I sense early music orchestral tyranny may have run its course. Big Beethoven is grunting and sticking his nose under the tent once again. Break out the plum wine.
The evening’s program, as you notice, reversed the chronology of Beethoven’s symphonies. Though the Eighth boasts Beethoven’s longest running fortissimo (in the first movement’s development section), the symphony is smaller-scale, more motoric and less reflective than anything but the First. It’s claim to novelty is the “metronome” second movement, which substitutes a sort of machine-like charm for anything inward. And the Scherzo would be a far more danceable minuet, were one so inclined, than its scrambled-sounding equivalent in the Fourth. So the earlier work actually sounds more “advanced”. In several ways it certainly is.
Listen to the sustained, veiled, psychologically claustrophobic B-flat minor introduction to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, and you realize the future is all there: the sunrise in Mahler 1 — the dawn and sunset of Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie and of D’Indy’s Jour d’été à la montagne — a good bit of Bernard Herrmann — the sinus-headache opening of Sibelius Four — and not a few Tom and Jerry cartoons!
Beethoven’s innovation is to set the mood with a creepy sustained woodwind tone, and then allow other instruments and the lower strings to “walk” the music along while maintaining it. Indeed, sometimes Beethoven walks you through the memory of the sustained tone, as if it were still there. And in your mind, it is…. This is the first example I know of in orchestral music where the forward movement of the music takes place within a mood, but without affecting it. Indeed, for this critic, the Romantic Era begins here!
Of course, if Beethoven had known how to sustain this quality throughout the symphony, he would have had to be born fifty years later than he was, so before long, the piece settles into a rapid, energizing allegro that might at first be mistaken for “big Haydn,” but even here Beethoven seems to be in his workshop, finding new ways to sustain bold declarations, more vigorous rhythms, unexpected entrances, and the odd moment where instruments are left exposed entirely on their own. The Fourth Symphony may not be a “concerto for orchestra,” but it nonetheless gives some of the instrumental choirs a new and liberated profile, and properly performed, as it was here, radiates sheer zest, joy and virtuosity, almost as though it were.
There is, of course, that enormous spotlight of a kettledrum roll at the outset of the first movement Allegro. Then we have the many timpani-assisted slashing syncopations that follow, answered by long brass chords which anticipate the boldness of the Fifth Symphony. The listener remains aware, of course, of the supposedly “delicate themes” of the Allegro — when one stops to think of them — but the really vivid moments in this music come from the memorably sustained attacks by brass and drums which interrupt them. This is probably the first symphony whose developmental moments are more consistently interesting as sheer sound than the themes from which they emerge.
Beethoven next composes a slow movement driven entirely by off-kilter timpani, which the other instruments sometimes imitate, a syncopated scherzo that falls all over itself in a reassuringly uncoordinated way, like a nimble but gawky Great Dane puppy, and a finale characterized by brasses and timpani shooting at an endlessly elusive array of high-speed string passagework and string tremoli. There are also early hints of tone-painting. Indeed, as a final timpani barrage fades away, we hear the basses rumble off beautifully into the distance like the storm in Beethoven’s “Pastorale.” But no rainbow this time. Beethoven just bolts the shutters and slams the door.
And opens many another… Pfitzner’s Preludes from the opera Palestrina wouldn’t have been possible without Beethoven. Beethoven had no idea, of course, but this is where all that harmonic innovation was leading — to chromatic sensuous fulfillment on the edge of key-signature chaos. I’m tempted to call the music around 1915 “Chromanticism”. It hardly seems to matter whether we are listening to Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Ravel, Strauss, Pfitzner, Rachmaninoff, Suk or Elgar. The advanced harmonies break our hearts and memorably challenge our ears to their limits.
Hans Pfitzner’s reputation suffers a bit, partly because nobody can remember his tunes, which are more motifs than sing-alongs. More importantly, he became a rabid Nazi, which certainly kept a lot of musicians from adopting his music with any enthusiasm. But the works in his canon which matter substantially precede this period.
The First and Third Preludes from Palestrina are hypnotic and touching–every melodic fragment sad and reminiscent. Underneath the nostalgia swirl bits of polyphony hinting at the Renaissance. The opera, after all, is about the attempt of the church to limit music to plain-chant and Palestrina’s battle to move it onward with polyphony. The low brass are in chorale mode, and we seem, like Bruckner, always about to consecrate and pray. It’s a rich tapestry and conducive to dreaming and reflection. You could see many people in the audience were transported.
Pfitzner’s Second Act Prelude is labelled “With force and savagery” — and delivered just that way sounded warlike and abrupt. Amusingly, it describes a debate among priests about the nature of music. Although the quieter preludes are keys to the soul, one does wonder at Pfitzner’s violent view of the clerics. You’d think he was evoking the First World War, then just beginning. Perhaps he was.