Flowers for Serge
Avery Fisher Hall
Serge Prokofieff: Russian Overture, Sinfonia concertante, Romeo and Juliet (excerpts)
Xavier Phillips (cello)
New York Philharmonic
Mstislav Rostropovich (conductor)
Serge Prokofieff died on the same day in 1953 as Joseph Stalin. The new regime decreed that no flowers could be placed on any grave except that of the fallen leader, and thus the composer, whose life may have been a very public struggle with his patrimony and patriotism, but whose heart and soul always dwelt in Mother Russia, was buried relatively unceremoniously. Of course, fifty years on, history has stripped the Georgian monster of any accolades or laurel wreaths and has elevated the musical artist to the heights of aesthetic commemoration. Or has it?
The 2002-2003 New York season has included a few works by the former enfant terrible, but perhaps hardly more than would have appeared naturally in a non-anniversary year. By contrast, the city is filled, as it should be, with celebratory Berliozian events on the occasion of the 200th birthday of that unique voice. For Prokofieff devotees, however, reliance on visiting Russians (Gergiev, Ashkenazy, and, today, Rostropovich) is virtually all that is available for condolence and sustenance. The 2003-2004 schedules are out now, and it my sad duty to report that there are only a few pieces of Prokofieff announced so far, even though there are again several multiple Berlioz events (and these not limited to French directors). But, like food in Moscow during the war, one must be grateful for whatever one gets.
Certainly grateful for such an expert interpreter as Mstislav Rostropovich. Even a pastiche like the Russian Overture (equal parts of Ipolitov-Ivanov, Hail to Stalin, and every bad Soviet movie score make up this pudding) receives a serious re-examination under this reverent conductor’s baton. Like Bruno Walter championing Bruckner and Mahler, there is a personal connection in the fervor which comes through as an absolute truth: a Rostropovich version is as close to the composer’s wishes as any of us will ever experience.
Richard Muehlfeld was, by all accounts, the greatest clarinetist of the 19th century, but nobody in the 21st would have ever heard of him but for Johannes Brahms tailoring his valedictory output to his particular talents. In his dotage, Slava reflects on his own role in music history and realizes that primarily he will be remembered as the inspiration for and collaborator of three of the most brilliant creators of his time: Benjamin Britten, Dmitri Shostakovich, and old Serge. Further, the pieces written for him by all three composers are direct results of this extraordinary cellist’s percussive, atavistic style: back in the day, the man was a force of nature, a wild wolf attacking his instrument as if it were a tundra deer. The Sinfonia concertante owes at least as much to its dedicatee as to its author, in fact, the piece languished in a drawer for years until the vital performer egged on the dispirited and dying composer to resurrect the sketches and finish the job. Xavier Phillips must now compete not just with the Herculean tactile demands of the work, but the living breathing legend waving his arms in front of him. Considering such a daunting challenge, he fared quite well, able to navigate the rapids and eddies (for those who know the Korngold concerto, imagine a much longer work with several febrile candenzas rather than just the one), if not contributing much to the overall poetry. For Mr. Phillips, the realization of this massive amount of notes is still weighted heavily to the perspiration rather than the inspiration side; perhaps he needs to perform it without the pressure of the looming presence in order to put his own personal stamp on the re-creation process. The orchestra was listless throughout, the strings dull (but sharp), the brass simply phoning it in. There was a disconcertingly surreal contrast between the energy level of the ensemble and that of the soloist. Undoubtedly this affected his overall performance, although, at the end of the day, he is just not, well, Rostropovich.
Frederick L. Kirshnit