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New York
Avery Fisher Hall
05/10/2001 -  
Arnold Schoenberg: Pelleas und Melisande
Richard Wagner (orch. Henze): Wesendonck Lieder
Richard Wagner: Overture to Tannhaeuser

Stephanie Blythe (mezzo-soprano)
New York Philharmonic
James Conlon (conductor)

Although born at the height of the Brahms-Wagner feud, Arnold Schoenberg matured as a musician at a time when the virulence of the schism was dissipating, allowing the teenager to revere the compositional techniques of the former while spending most of his evenings enraptured by the works of the latter. Too poor to afford tickets, the young student used to stand for hours outside of the opera house in Vienna, listening to innumerable performances of the great Wagner operas and then, rushing back to his modest quarters, staying up all night to play the most inspiring passages with his friends. Schoenberg had an equal love of both composers and was thus, like in so many other areas of intellectual and aesthetic thought, years ahead of his fellows (Gunther Schuller once told a symposium audience that many American orchestral musicians were still anti-Brahms as late as the 1950’s). The fin-de-siecle works of the revolutionary-to-be are filled with the joy and corpulence of Teutonic romanticism and there are only a few hints of his later discoveries in the areas of pantonality or Judaism. As in the works of his brother-in-law Zemlinsky, the ecstasies (some would say excesses) of Wagner were the freshest and newest of inspirations. Combining the overwrought tone poem Pelleas und Melisande with the white hot intensity of the songs which Wagner wrote for his human incarnation of Isolde was thus a highly charged programmatic idea, enough to give a proper Victorian lady the vapors.

Of course, with the benefit of historical perspective and a little scholarly research, we realize now that the era was one of the most pornographic in history, a battleground between libertine and inquisitor (small wonder that both the libido and the superego were identified at this very place and time). The real argument between Shaw and Hanslick centers not around musical matters at all, but rather the nature of passion and its place in polite society. The New York Philharmonic could not have obtained the services of a more qualified interpreter for this particular repertoire than James Conlon, a native New Yorker who got away to splendid positions in Cologne and Paris, but who visits periodically and shares his absorption in this era with those of us whom he left behind. Conlon is in the process of mounting all of the Zemlinsky operas and dazzled last season with some rare choral works of the still neglected Austrian. His Pelleas was rich and opulent, although there were serious lapses in intonation in the forte passages. The orchestra overall played very well for him, the flow of the tone poem steady and luxuriant, the implied four movements of this stealth symphony clearly defined. What the Phil lacked in execution it more than made up for in emotion and, for many, this was the first experience of Schoenberg which didn’t leave a bad taste in the ear.

The Wagnerian Schoenberg turned into the Schoenbergian Wagner in a rare performance of the Hans Werner Henze orchestrations of the Wesendonck Lieder. This chamber orchestra expansion of the voice and piano versions was reminiscent of the miniatures expressly written for Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances, some of the sonorities akin to those in that magical reduction of L’apres midi d’un faune attributed to Hanns Eisler but probably actually fashioned by Schoenberg himself. However, the Henze embellishments were rather inconsequential, particularly showing their pallor in the two songs orchestrated by Wagner as scenes from the later Tristan. Having said that, they were excellently performed by the small ensemble, although it was a curious phenomenon that the orchestral arrangement was much less colorful than the piano original. Stephanie Blythe has a very powerful mezzo, full and rich and capable of centered pitch as she creates a seamless transition between notes, but her very effortlessness emphasizes her lack of ability to convey genuine emotion (the Jane Eaglen problem). Never have I heard such lackluster vocal renditions of these highly passionate songs. There was definitely something wrong with the humidity level in Ms. Blythe’s Treibhaus.

The whole band got back together for a shining reading of the original overture from Tannhaeuser (apparently this concert was turned on its head in order to keep the crowd from fleeing before the Schoenberg). Given the steamy nature of the program, the Paris version might have been more appropriate (I miss those castanets!), but Conlon certainly drew out the maximum from his forces. This is the nineteenth century aesthetic revolution in miniature: repressed sexuality churning and yearning to break free, the duality of Elisabeth and Venus eloquently explored. Wagner, like Mozart, often tells the entire story of the opera in its orchestral introduction (cf. the “broken spear” motif which is the basis of the storm that opens Die Walkuere). Both Pelleas and this overture are the children of Liszt: the embroidered Victorian fairy tale, the tone poem redux. With an advocate like James Conlon, we were all enthralled with their retelling.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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