Through Thick and Thin
Avery Fisher Hall
Franz Schmidt: Concertante Variations on a Theme by Beethoven
Max Reger: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven/Richard Strauss: The Ruins of Athens
Stefan Vladar (piano)
Heather Buck (soprano)
Andrew Schroeder (baritone)
Gabor Andrasy (bass)
The Desoff Choirs
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)
Density in music is not discussed that often, but there is definitely something about the organ which makes its adherents who turn to composition in other media fill each measure with as much activity as possible. Perhaps it is all of that counterpoint which permeates the great literature for the queen of instruments. I think more elementally, however, it is the overtonal ceiling created by the air emerging from the conflatorium which results in a constant drone interacting with the individual musical moment to produce at least an expectation of harmonic thickness. Whatever the root cause, there is no doubt that the mature music of Max Reger is some of the most chockablock in history. Whether writing for the piano (the Bach Variations), chamber group (the Fifth String Quartet), or full orchestra, Reger always crammed as much musical information as possible into every beat. Gustav Mahler, no stranger to dense writing, was amazed at Reger’s abilities to create both complexity and clarity, and Arnold Schoenberg, many of whose scores are as crowded as an intersection in downtown Tokyo, thought Reger to be one of the truly great composers of all time. In fact, textbooks on music history of the period treat Reger as a far more important personage than his fellow organist Anton Bruckner while not even mentioning Mahler at all.
Richard Strauss spent his whole creative life trying to make his sound thinner. As if seeking expiation for both of his sins, he consciously tried to jettison his youthfully rebellious pantonal style, most powerfully employed in Elektra, as well as his later opulent phase, heavy with the stench of rotting orchids (what the Viennese call “beautiful dirt”) and most characteristically defined in Rosenkavalier. Along the way, he experimented with presenting two distinct vocal lines at once, most cleverly in the scenes (I hesitate to call them duets since they are at cross purposes) between Bacchus and Zerbinetta in Ariadne. Finally, Strauss’ late music presents very fragile and naked melodic lines culminating in the exquisite Capriccio.
Eminent cellist of the Vienna Philharmonic Franz Schmidt, roughly bridging the generation gap between these two composers, wrote in a relatively thick style emulating (although he would never admit this due to the enmity between the two) his conductor Mahler and often achieving a similar searing emotion in his symphonic output.
So what do these three men have in common? Leon Botstein answered this question musically Friday evening as his American Symphony Orchestra presented each composer’s major work based on material composed by Beethoven. Extremely cogent commentary in the program notes left little to discuss in the Schmidt, but what is particularly interesting about the piece is that it was written for piano left hand and orchestra for the virtuoso Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm in the Great War. Based on motifs from the ”Spring” Sonata, these variations (sometimes referred to as the Piano Concerto # 1) were often performed on tour by Wittgenstein but have since found themselves buried in the musical basement which is the particular province of Professor Botstein’s archaeological digs. As if the piece weren’t rare enough, the ASO chose to resurrect a two-handed version sanctioned by the composer in later years. What was remarkable about the performance was the gentle Classical grace which Botstein uncovered at the core of the work. Pianist Stefan Vladar was quite impressive, his fluid touch just right for this work of delicate balance.
More substantial and more representative of his mature style is the Reger, a piece which was actually commonplace in the repertoire 60 or 70 years ago. It is a major construction, paced and plotted like a great Bach organ prelude and fugue, the very logic of the variants an element in the emotional release of the work as a whole. The ASO has never sounded better, warming immediately to the intellectual side of the music, keeping their sense of line pristine throughout, swelling wonderfully in the powerful conclusion. The listener can always count on an interesting evening from this ensemble, but not always a precise one. On this night, the magic was equally distributed between repertoire and presentation.
Arrangement? Compilation? Compendium? Pastiche? Beethoven’s Greatest Hits? Any of these descriptions could be applied to the bizarre material presented after intermission. What we heard was essentially a reworking by Strauss and Hoffmannsthal of snippets of the master’s works for the stage and the concert hall. There were sections from The Ruins of Athens (including the famous “Turkish March”), parts of The Creatures of Prometheus (a propos, since these two works are often confused in the public mind), a tapestry of themes from the symphonies, an entire section of the ”Eroica”, some new characters, a full chorus, and even a speaker. It was all like a game wherein you were charged with identifying the composer, the music moving from some of his more obscure moments to lovely and familiar melodies that even a novice listener could recognize. These ill-fated works are Botstein’s specialty and, although there was little new under the Attic sun, it was indeed a pleasure to hear this music presented in such a graceful manner. The challenge was having to dig deep to find any Richard Strauss.
It is the nature of the American Symphony to push the envelope of programming. There is a special feeling of excitement when one attends their evenings because of the unpredictability of the bill of fare. The resulting experience is always edifying and often satisfying. It is his inexhaustible thirst which attracts Botstein’s dedicated core group of listeners as they embark on their musical adventures and follow their leader through thick and thin.
Frederick L. Kirshnit