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Ax, And Ye shall Receive

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/11/2014 -  
Richard Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, Opus 30 – Burleske in D minor – Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Opus 28
Emanuel Ax (Pianist)
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (Music Director Designate and Conductor)

When Lorin Maazel, the Music Director or the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, took ill last week, few concertgoers complained that Valery Gergiev would replace him for this first concert of the orchestra. (Fabio Luisi will replace Maestro Maazel for tonight’s concert.) But outside Carnegie Hall last night, three-dozen banner-carrying protestors certainly did complain. In signs and chants spoken and written in Russian and Ukrainian Cyrillic, English and German, they proclaimed that Varlery Gergiev is a war criminal–because he is an F.O.P.

An F.O.P. is not an 18th Century dandy. It designates Gergiev as a “Friend of Putin.” And not only a friend, but when Russia invaded South Ossetia, the native North Ossetian conductor supported Russia as well as tacitly supporting Putin in his latest adventures.

New York will have no real influence on Mr. Putin in his 24-hour stay here. His orchestra performed. Soloist Emanuel Ax, who was urged by a friend to boycott his work, cited contractual responsibilities and went on stage. The episode was a minor annoyance.

New York, though, is only the tip of the protesting. In Great Britain, Gergiev has been urged to leave his post at the London Symphony Orchestra, for supporting the Putin of the Ukraine Invasion, and the Putin who enforces the anti-gay laws.

"It is our view,” said a letter, “that Mr Gergiev's current position is untenable, and he should be suspended with immediate effect until he officially withdraws his name from the list published on the Russian Culture Ministry's website and fully explains his position on the Anti-Homosexual Propaganda Bill.”

Whatever the result of the London protests, the conductor flew into New York the morning of the performance, took the Munich Philharmonic through its paces, gave his concert, and presumably is even now flying back to his hot reception in Great Britain.

Mr. Gergiev, one of the busiest men in the conducting business, may not even be aware of the protests. In fact, outside of the political pressure, his chore here was quite simple. He knows the Munich Orchestra inside and out, preparing to be their Musical Conductor next year. The Munich Orchestra, formed in 1893, one year before last night’s music was written, knows their Richard Strauss. And the full-house Carnegie Hall audience, presumably oblivious or (from my conversations last night) confused by the ruckus, settled down for an evening of entertaining familiar music.

The Munich Philharmonic performed its duties with their usual aplomb, though for two of the Strauss works, Mr. Gergiev had no particular insights. Certainly not by his conducting style, which is, to say the least, disconcerting. I always thought that Wilhelm Furtwangler was the most awkward leader, but Mr. Gergiev last night was obviously conducting his orchestra by some arcane code or simply allowing them to play on automatic plot.

Stickless for all three works, Mr. Gergiev pressed his knuckles, leaned back like a backstroke swimmer, cued in when necessary, but otherwise let the orchestra play they way they’ve always played. That is, they are top-rate instrumentalists. They don’t have the Bismark/Karajan discipline of the Berlin Philharmonic but they can make a mighty sound when necessary.

Their soloists are excellent Not a single poor note from the Eulenspiegel horn, the most creditable timpani in both Burleske and Zarathustra, and the Concertmaster offered excellent solos throughout.

Still, even the best performances of Also SprachZarathustra, can be a chore. I know the piece, have studied the score, and I still find it unbearably thick. Strauss’s inspiration was never failing in the few themes which jutted out, but the orchestration was like a Brobdingnagian farewell to the age of huge orchestras.

Reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra is great fun, for this is an aphoristic tome whose adages are interesting when the ersatz Oriental wisdom is puzzling. The Strauss tone-poem, though aside from the famed exordium, which Kubrick used for 2001, has less the epigrammatic style of Nietzsche than the density of a Wittgenstein. Those who praise Strauss the orchestrator rarely mention this work, for the texture is impenetrable.

The most I can say of it is that Mr. Gergiev made no mistakes. It played itself well, the waltz was delicious, the big climaxes were climactic, but Mr. Gergiev was less than inspired, and the orchestra reflected that tedium. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of any performance outside of Karajan’s, which comes near to breaking through the huge orchestral resources here. Reportedly Dudamel has a Zarathustra which knocks one’s socks off. But I haven’t heard it yet, so my feet are not yet bare.

The opposite of Zarathustra is Till Eulenspiegel, and Gergiev, letting his orchestra dazzle with great clarinet and horn-playing let it go into the usual stratosphere. This was the transparent Strauss, plodding through the sound-choked jungle of the philosopher, but the wit, images, and simplicity of a picaresque medieval hero.

Finally, the one work which distinguished last night’s concert. Not from the embattled Mr Gergiev but from Emanuel Ax, whose own humorous demeanor reflected the toss-away humor of Strauss’s Burleske.

The composer called this very early scherzo “pure nonsense”, but when played by the right artist, it brims over with marvelous ideas. Emanuel Ax was that kind of artist. He entered the stage with his usual shrug, allowed the four timpani to ring forth the opening, and then let his fingers do the work.

The Ax digits are always miraculous, but when he has a birthday cake which is nearly all icing, he’s like a kid in a candy-store. Yes, Burleske has its Schumannesque meditative moments. But Mr. Ax–and presumably Mr. Strauss–found these notes to be only contrasts for the merry romp between them.

It isn’t that Richard Strauss was ever a “merry” composer. But when he wrote a piece which basically said, “Oh, to hell with philosophy or Mozart. Let’s have a good time”, he succeeded. Mr. Ax took up that thread, unreeled it and let the music soar high above anything else.

Mr. Gergiev might not have felt his performance was one of the great ones, but Mr. Ax and Burlerske at least gave justification for his literally fly-by-night appearance.

Harry Rolnick



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