Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony # 1
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 4
New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur (conductor)
Simply because Brahms worked in a whorehouse, Dmitri Shostakovich is only eligible for the second prize in the contest for the most unusual piano gig by a classical composer. As a student in St. Petersburg (Petrograd in those early, heady revolutionary days), he performed nightly in a silent movie house, accompanying the flickering visual scenes with improvised keyboard mastery. Shostakovich was particularly fond of Buster Keaton, his Symphony # 1 reflecting the herky-jerky motions of the physical comic and attempting to recreate their viscerally stroboscopic effect on his audience (compare the tavern scene from Berg’s Wozzeck). For his final appearance at Carnegie Hall at the helm of the New York Philharmonic, Kurt Masur chose to open his program with a presentation of this youthful work’s audio-visual possibilities.
The problem was that all of the critics of Shostakovich could take aid and comfort from this muddy performance. Inner voices were consistently swallowed in a cacophony of shrill utterance, presented at an ear-splittingly constant high volume. This emphasis on the loud for its own sake made the normally inventive symphony seem positively dull and, if one was to desire this type of sustained fortissimo, the last ensemble one would want is the New York Philharmonic. Anything above a whisper is dangerous with these inexact players; the net effect of this reading was simply chaos (you know that it is a bad night when even the timpani is out of tune). The culminating dramatic crescendo had literally no place to go. And where was the humor inherent in this work? Masur’s stolid reading was both deadly serious and seriously deadly. With so much overblown brass, if Stalin had heard this performance, he would have banished poor Dmitri to the Gulag immediately.
In much the same way as opulent cinema palaces eventually turned into classical concert halls, the movies had a significant effect on the serious music of the 20th century. What is much less often explored, however, is the direct lineage from symphonic composition to early filmic expression and construction. The auteurs of the silent era were deeply influenced by the sonic imagery of the composers of the Romantic period and, without the programmatic tendencies of these musical geniuses, there would be an entirely different look to the mature works of Griffith, Gance or Murnau (the ghastly striking of the clock in Nosferatu is straight out of Berlioz or Moussorgsky). The argument which raged in the 19th century between the ideals of absolute and program music was the incubator for the aesthetics of not only the symphonies of the fin-de-siecle, but also the rich vignettes of the Neolithic era of the cinema. Even absolutists like Anton Bruckner were infatuated with the dramatic scenic possibilities of musical composition and his Symphony # 4 conjures very specific fantasies of chivalry and heraldry, medieval heroes and fair maidens. In many ways, the symphonies of Bruckner and virtually the entire output of his disciple Gustav Mahler are “closet movies”, meant to be visually experienced with the eyes firmly closed.
Much more comfortable idiomatically with this music, Herr Masur was true to form in leading an intelligently developed reading of this pictorial score. However, an entirely new set of problems plagued this performance. Although there were some extraordinary moments, especially the double-tonguing of the horns in the building of the opening of the fourth movement, there were any number of incorrect entrances, wrong notes or passages simply played badly. There were fewer opportunities for poor intonation than in the Shostakovich, since Maestro did not lean on the volume switch so heavily, but whenever there was a forte tutti, you could rely on its being shaky at best. With no sense of melodic flow, its place was taken by an awkwardness of transitions. Robert Schumann once wrote in a review of a Chopin premiere that “…even the rests and silences were the personal mark of this genius”. In this rendition, it was apparent that these caesuras were not the creations of the composer but rather the poisoned fruit of hesitancy. My companion noted that all of this sloppiness was particularly shameful as this concert was an entry in Carnegie’s “Introduction to the Classics” series, the crowd consisting of patrons, including many young people, who were sincerely interested in learning more about these important works. I can’t imagine that they came away inspired. The entire experience was reminiscent of the bad old days before Masur’s normally steady hand; hopefully it is not a portent of what we can expect once he departs for London. My evening at these imaginary movies came a cropper; I probably would have been better served to go and visit Harry Potter instead.
Frederick L. Kirshnit