A Handful of Last Season’s Orchestral Concerts in New York—All Worth Remembering

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Semyon Bychkov

Semyon Bychkov

Semyon Bychkov
Wednesday, November 30, 2016 | 8 PM
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov, Conductor
Detlev Glanert – Theatrum bestiarum (NY Premiere)
Mahler – Symphony No. 5

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center
Saturday, December 10, 2016, 2:00 p.m.
Jiří Bĕlohlávek, conductor
Robert Langevin, flute / piccolo; Liang Wang, oboe
Anthony McGill, clarinet; Amy Zoloto, bass clarinet
Judith LeClair, bassoon; Christopher Martin, trumpet
Philip Myers, horn
Hindemith – Kleine Kammermusik for Five Winds, Op. 24, No. 2
Hindemith – Septet
Dvořák – Symphony No. 6

Beloved Friend — Tchaikovsky And His World: A Philharmonic Festival
Conducted By Semyon Bychkov, with Kirill Gerstein
David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center
Thursday, February 2, 2017, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, February 3, 2017, 11:00 a.m.
Saturday, February 4, 2017, 8:00 p.m.
Tuesday, February 7, 2017, 7:30 p.m.
Semyon Bychkov, conductor
Kirill Gerstein, piano
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No. 1 (1879 version)
Tchaikovsky – Manfred Symphony

Manfred Honeck Conducts Mahler; Artist-In-Association
Inon Barnatan In Beethoven
David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center
Wednesday, February 15, 2017, 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, February 16, 2017, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, February 17, 2017, 2:00 p.m.
Saturday, February 18, 2017, 8:00 p.m.
Manfred Honeck, conductor
Inon Barnatan, piano
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 1
Mahler – Symphony No. 1

Even the most independent of us can’t hear everything one might like to. In New York, choices must be made, usually based on what one thinks is most important, and often enough what is important has nothing to do with music. Family obligations kept me away from Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, although he was in his prime repertory for his final US appearances with the orchestra, and sheer surfeit diluted my enthusiasm for Gergiev. He is not the only friend of Vladimir Putin’s to be accused of spending too much time on the golf course, and it shows in his wayward performances. What I did manage to hear brought discovery in conductors of exceptional ability I hadn’t heard before and some new music, as well as measures of excitement, admiration, and boredom.

Semyon Bychkov, although he has conducted orchestras I hear often, has escaped me until now. My first exposure to his work, in the sole New York concert of the Concergebouw Orchestra, raised a number of questions in my mind. The first piece on the program was the New York premiere of Detlef Glanert’s Theatrum bestiarum (2005), a musical bestiary in a suite-like tone poem, using material from a long-term project of his, an opera called Caligula, which premiered the following year. Glanert based this opera on Albert Camus’ play of the same name, about one of the most criminal of the Roman emperors, projected over the memory of Fascism and the Second World War. Glanert composed his bestiary in the same grim spirit, taking a dark view of animals and the humanity they represent. The dedication to Shostakovich reflects Glanert’s rich, varied treatment of the orchestra and the ferocity of his caricature. While Glanert compares this work to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 (“The Year 1905”), I sensed a strong relationship to the symphonic poems of Richard Strauss. Both the Theatrum bestiarum and Caligula begin with the same complex, dissonant, horrific chord one of the most striking features of the work. Although its use of tonality is historically more advanced, the Theatrum seemed to be doing what Strauss did back in his day and basically not much more. This is not to diminish the sophistication and complexity of Herr Glanert’s work. He uses his ties to his predecessors—his sense of musical history—in a creative and dramatically effective way, to say the least. Bychkov is a champion of his work, and the performance excelled, not only for the Concertgebouw’s mastery of his palette, but for the clarity, cohesion, and flow he brought to it.

Bychkov then gave Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which occupied the second half of the program, a performance which was beautifully played, but questionable in concept. A few years ago I marvelled at an extraordinary performance of that work under Michael Tilson Thomas with the BSO. In this probing and dramatic performance, the tempi were unusually slow, and MTT came close to losing the pulse and shape of Mahler’s music…but this never actually happened, however, and the preformance was gripping from beginning to end. In this performance, on the other hand, Bychkov crossed the line. His leaden tempi showed us a microscopic view of the symphony. Although this enabled the players of the Concertgebouw to produce beautiful sounds with their instruments, it was more than Mahler’s writing could bear. Mahler’s tension and drama were dissipated, and without the sense of the composer prestidigitating amazing effects, strange progressions, and affecting melodies out of a hat, the power of the symphony was diminished. Bychkov was given to hanging in the moment, which created his own arbitrary suspension, also over-preparing surprising events in the work. While I did not think this was a succesful performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, it had many intriguing qualities, above all Bychkov’s way of bringing out and emphasizing the macabre passages in the work. These were fascinating, surreal, Ensorian moments, which occasionally entered the realm of horror. This probably points to why Bychkov paired the Mahler with the Glanert in the first place. In all, I found I was able to relate most comfortably to Bychkov’s Mahler by regarding it as an eccentric performance of extraordinary imagination and ability.

I was, much to my regret, only able to attend one of Semyon Bychkov’s Tchaikovsky concerts with the New York Philharmonic, but this one program gave me a somewhat different view of the conductor. From the earlier concert one could not doubt his technique as a conductor, his imagination, independence, and ear, but he was highly idiosyncratic. In a program that consisted of Tchaikovsky’s tired old First Piano Concerto and Manfred Symphony these qualities led to a thrilling revelation of the best qualities of both works. He, pianist Kirill Gerstein, and the New York Philharmonic accomplished just what a first-class orchestra in a major city should do in a subscription concert: they removed every speck of dust on overly familiar war horses and brought a lesser-known work to life. Both are underestimated in their different ways.

I last heard the concerto—not a piece I go out of my way hear—at SPAC a few years ago. Garrick Ohlsson approached the work with the solid integrity and straightforwardness we expect from him, and Stéphane Denève led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a grand, beautifully played accompaniment. There was nothing not to admire in the execution, but I came away even more deeply entrenched in my habitual view that Tchaikovsky’s first is an overblown showpiece, weak in structure and vulgar in expression.

Kirill Gerstein has attracted quite a lot attention with his researches into the publication and performance history of the concerto. The edition which has been regarded as standard through the twentieth century was published after the composer’s death with revisions by his pupil, possibly Alexander Siloti. This version opens with the massive repeated fortissimo chords in the piano, which get the concerto off to its familiar bombastic start and inflates everything that comes after. There were numerous other revisions in the writing for piano and orchestra, all in the direction of thicker testures, as well as a significant cut in the development of the finale. Sergey Taneev, another pupil of the compser’s, who helped copy the original version and first played the piano part in Russia, complained in a letter written in 1912 about the editorial revisions which plagued the scores available at the time and the performances based on them. Gerstein has decided to go back to Tchaikovsky’s 1879 revision of the concerto, which he originally composed in 1874-75. Here, the work opens with the soloist playing the opening chords as arpeggios, marked only forte. Textures are accordingly much lighter and and the dynamics more subdued. This beginning colors the entire remainder of the work, and what a difference it makes! Gerstein, freed from the grandiosity of the revisions, played with precision and consummate virtuosity, making musical sense of what seemed mere display. His passage work was crystalline, absolutely clear, and he used the sustaining pedal so discreetly that one didn’t think about it. Bychkov revelled in the opening-up of the textures and elicited the most sensitive, chamber-music-like playing from the New York Philharmonic’s splendid winds. The orchestra interacted with Gerstein’s steady pace in the second movement, and his simple statement of its charming theme with believable intimacy, free from any affectation or loaded expressivity. Without the cut the last movement was coherent for once, and with Gerstein’s clean, lively execution the extremely virtuosity did not get in the way of its musical qualities. Gerstein and Bychkov did indeed get to the pith of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, one of the most familiar works in the repertory, but long defaced and bloated by editorial interventions. Gerstein’s performance was just right and showed a mastery of the instrument and the score, which puts him at a whole new level. When I have heard him in the past, I have admired much, above all, his individuality, but I have noticed this or that, which held him back from total success. This and his later work with the Hagen Quartet in Brahms’ Piano Quintet show him to have fully arrived.

Some conductors can work with any good orchestra in Geffen Hall and make its acoustical defects seem to go away, and others cannot. Semyon Bychkov is one of these that can achieve this feat. Both the strings and winds of the Philharmonic sounded rich and mellow throughout the concert.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, longer and more elaborate that any of his numbered symphonies, has never  been a favorite with conductors or audiences. Hence there is not the same accretion of editorial and performance tradition to contend with. That is not the issue. The cultural pundit, Vladimir Stasov, pushed the young Tchaikovsky into it, who eventually gathered some enthusiasm for the project and composed a hybrid tone poem built on a symphonic structure. The symphonic forms are replete with atmospheric scene-painting and narrative detail. Eventually Tchaikovsky was to excel at both, but separately. Bychkov, never failing to produce the most beautiful playing, showed how the work is both coherent as a symphony and gripping as a narrative. A colleague who never liked the work declared himself a convert, and so was I. If our New York Philharmonic can achieve this kind of conversion a few times a year, it is doing the best any orchestra can do.

Manfred Honeck. Photo Felix Broede.

Manfred Honeck. Photo Felix Broede.

However, this wonder happened again only a few weeks later, when Manfred Honeck took the podium. Tne Philharmonic played early Beethoven and early Mahler for him, both with a secure command of style and, I think, genuine pleasure and enthusiasm. Inon Barnatan, who made a strong impression on me in the Montreal Chamber Music Festival only a few years ago, when he still had the air of a “young artist,” has since become a fixture with the Philharmonic as Artist-in-Association. Now, impeccably suited with a touch of grey at his temples, his appearance promised assurance and polish. And polish is what he delivered, in the best sense of the word, because every bar was enlivened by sparkling wit and Beethovenian energy. His articulation was clear, only subtly blurred by pedal into a streaming line, and there was nothing in the performance that was fudged or less than his honest best, which is impressive. Mr. Honeck absorbed his sophisticated high spirits and convincing the players of the Philhamronic that this is actually cheerful music, full of easy high spirits along with solid virtuosity. Honeck’s recordings of Beethoven symphonies have been praised for their originality and individual  perspective, and aside from his natural sympathy for Barnatan, his Beethoven was cut of the same cloth.

Those who have listened to the interview I conducted with Manfred Honeck will know, that, as an Austrian, he has a particular view of Mahler’s music. He considers Mahler as a true Austrian, born in Moravia, still part of the Empire, with its own local traditions in folklore and music, then assimilated to Vienna, the capital city. For Honeck Mahler’s First is a truly radical work, one of the most advanced for its time. Before discussing this with him and hearing this magnificent performance, I thought of Mahler as a backward-looking, nostalgic composer, a sort of romantique manqué, and of his First Symphony as typical of this. But Honeck opened my mind, and his performance opened my ears. He revealed Mahler as a quintessentially Austrian composer, one who wished to embrace as many of the varied cultures and traditions of the Empire as he could. Many American conductors rely on the Jewish allusions in this symphony to convey the exotic elements of Austrian music, but there is much more to Mahler’s First than that. Honeck knows the various musical traditions of his native country intimately, and he continues to research them. The richness and complexity of the musical referents he perceives in this work—and of course the Second, the Third, and others follow—is astonishing, and I am entirely co9nverted to his view of Mahler and this particular work…which happens to be overplayed nowadays. Michael Tilson Thomas, Andris Nelsons, soon Daniele Gatti have all been at it. I preferred to miss these and keep this revelatory performance in my memory. There is no other conductor who works in the U. S., I respect more than Manfred Honeck.

This article was originally intended as a retrospective of as much of the season as I was ablt to hear, but, given the interruption in its writing, I’ll leave it at this. The only other concert on a level of interest comparable to these from the New York Philharmonic was from our other great local orchestra, that of the Metropolitan Opera. Esa-Pekka Salonen led them to perfection in an all-Sibelius concert, which was the only one I could attend. The Boston Symphony orchestra performed two important New York premieres, Gubaildulina’s Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Bayan, which was a bit over-long, as her pieces often are, and George Benjamin’s powerful Dream of the Song. I’ll not try to do justice to it here. I should perhaps mention Nelsons’ exquisite performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad.” This consisted of one very beautiful sound after another. Nelsons treated this questionable work as a museum piece. I was in a sense amazed to hear so many pretty sounds, but I have never been so bored at a concert in my life. I had trouble staying in my seat to the end. The composer and the conductor must share the blame.

Jiří Bĕlohlávek. In Memoriam.

Jiří Bĕlohlávek. In Memoriam.

Sadly this season marked was Jiří Bĕlohlávek’s last visit to our city. A master of Czech repertory and much else, he occupied a place in the grand line of Czech conductors—Talich, Neumann, Ančerl, et. al.—but he went his own way. I have always thought that the great Czech conductors were quite conservative in regard to tempo fluctuations and that they tended to keep a steady pulse through movements. Bĕlohlávek on the other hand varied tempi widely within movements. His unforgettable Dvořák “New World” with his own Czech Philharmonic—as musicianly as any orchestra today—was extremely flexible in tempo. Bĕlohlávek had his way of settling the orchestra into specific dance tempi to make the most of their characteristic rhythms. In the course of a very pleasant and relaxed Saturday afternoon concert, which included two chamber works of Hindemith, his contribution consisted of a masterful reading of Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony. The New York Philharmonic strings proved not as flexible as those of the Czech Philharmonic in the coda of the finale, but otherwise their playing was superb, with the Philharmonic’s splendid winds excelling. A fine occasion to remember the maestro by.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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