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Last Songs of the Season, Part One

Academy of Music
05/05/2001 -  
Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 4

Pamela Coburn (soprano)
Philadelphia Orchestra
Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)

As a result of one of those marvelous coincidences which grace a critic's life, my last concert of the season in Philadelphia (and perhaps the last ever for me at the Academy) featured the same music as the upcoming final concert of the season of the New York Philharmonic. Fortuitously concerned with finality (in fact, the ultimate ending), the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss have been employed as farewells by many enterprising programmers and used in a variety of contexts to express the pain and grief of shuffling off. Anyone who has seen Linda Hunt's preparations for death in the brilliant Peter Weir film The Year of Living Dangerously will remember the poignancy of her accompaniment of her own suicide with a phonograph recording of the piece. After being disappointed last evening by the cancellation of Olga Borodina at Carnegie Hall (my companion and I consoling ourselves with a lovely dinner and an evening at cinema, thank you), I journeyed to Philadelphia with a foreknowledge gleaned through an email from a publicist that the diva for tonight's affair was also indisposed. As it happened, though, the substitute soprano du soir made us all forget about the absence of Renee Fleming.

Pamela Coburn has a quiet and gentle conception of these very moving songs. Her performance was one of intense sobriety and dignity as befits the solemnity of the work. This is not to say that the emotion was lacking; on the contrary, it was strangely heightened by being held in check, a sob stifled by a lump in the throat. Her volume level mezzo-piano throughout, Ms. Coburn held us rapt by unwavering pitch, disciplined transitions and heartfelt thespianism. Her semiquavers in September, almost a whispered yodel, were perfect at expressing just the hint of overwhelming grief, as if she were reciting a eulogy for her own youth and doing so with the utmost grace and precision, suddenly invaded by just a hint of an empathetic shudder which conveyed to all the extreme regret not quite totally repressed by the ceremonial nature of the occasion. This figure has always been the emotional apex of the work for me, and its reprise in the solo horn, a remembrance of the composer's father who was a horn virtuoso, triggered a welling up in me, not surprising as I had the pleasure of hearing this concert accompanied by my own son. Ms. Coburn was also extremely emotive in the final declaration of demise, following as it does an orchestral quote from Death and Transfiguration. Her very quietude was the key to this sensitive performance, and the orchestra responded in kind, the solo by concertmaster David Kim notable not just for its rich mellowness but also for its sotto voce breathlessness. This was a very moving experience.

The interval was followed by a superb performance of the Bruckner 4. The occasion prompted me to cogitate on the Wolfgang Sawallisch experience as a whole. From opening calls to final triumphant chords, this was a reading of such breadth and dignity, such large scope and attention to detail, as to thoroughly impress as authentic. Perhaps the most secure hand at the throttle in American orchestral performance today, the skills of this departing Maestro are prodigious. The Wagnerian atmosphere created by the subdued strings bordered on the holy, the rock solid beat unwaveringly comforting. The heraldric third movement was especially evocative and colorful, the excellent horn section shining at this gloriously decorated joust. I have often praised the orchestra on its individual section sound; in this reading I was struck with the totality of its blend; by the end of this flawless performance, it was hard to think of another group, even those high echelon bands of Europe, who could achieve a more satisfying tutti sonority. If this is indeed my final visit to the Academy (the new hall is due to open before year's end), it was one which only strengthened my reserve of pleasant memories.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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