Breaking The Camel's Back
Avery Fisher Hall
Anton Webern: Langsamer Satz
Alban Berg: Altenberg Lieder
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concert Arias K272 & 418
Serge Prokofieff: from Romeo and Juliet
Christine Schaefer (soprano)
New York Philharmonic
Daniele Gatti (conductor)
Although the story of the controversial premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913 is much better known, the first attempt at a performance of the Five Orchestral Songs after Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg just two months earlier created an even more juicy confrontation. Their composer, the student Alban Berg, whose major contribution to twentieth century music would be his integration of traditional romantic aesthetics into the new vocabulary of pantonalism, was artistic advisor for what would go down in history as the infamous “scandal concert”, interrupted by boos and catcalls which quickly accelerated into fisticuffs and ultimately led to the premature suspension of the proceedings during these particular settings by the intervention of the Viennese police. Sparking a passionate debate in the local press and a lively discussion of musical values in the unlikely setting of a municipal courtroom, this violent rejection of new music by a conservative audience set the tone for the entire struggle of acceptance of radical ideas throughout the remainder of the century. The shy and studious Berg, whose sister became one of the most revolutionary advocates for gay rights in the Germanic world, found himself instantly caught up in storming the battlements of 19th century bourgeois comfort. The world had to wait a full forty years for these songs to be performed as a complete cycle and the concert as a whole was not recreated until 1999 in a marvelous reconstruction in New York championed by Leon Botstein. The songs are Berg’s first foray into orchestral writing (the arrangement of the Seven Early Songs for full orchestra came much later in 1928) and show his inclination to compose for large forces (there are six percussion players but only one singer) but to mould them into the most fragile type of delicacy of statement. Their performance last evening by the New York Philharmonic was notable for the unusual combination of a renowned Berg expert, soprano Christine Schaefer, whose appearances as Berg’s saucy but tormented Lulu have earned her high critical praise, with an orchestra who, at least under music director Kurt Masur, has shown a pronounced unfamiliarity with this modern master’s expressive language.
Back in my youth when I was a polemicist for the Second Viennese School, I would have been furious that a piece such as Langsamer Satz would be included on a program such as this. The works of Webern are so seldom presented that I would have much preferred a mature, pantonal and pointillistic miniature essay that employed this unique master’s tonal painting style. But since I myself have matured, I realize now that these early Straussian efforts are also worthy of consideration. Guest conductor Daniele Gatti certainly brought out the richness of the score and the Philharmonic strings played quite lushly for him.
My companion wondered why Berg was so popular at the opera house but still such a pariah at the symphony. This is not an easy question, but it is true that his orchestral works, with the notable exception of the Violin Concerto, have never taken hold in America. There were more empty seats at Avery Fisher last evening than at any other New York Phil concert that I have attended in the last several years. This was truly tragic, as those who stayed away based on repertoire lost the opportunity to hear one of the most accomplished singers of our time. Christine Schaefer has a rich and supple instrument and is capable of making it sing even when the jumps from one note to the next are as uncompromising as those of Berg. She also has mastered the Sprechstimme style, projecting the medium as entirely natural as she journeys from shrill cry to dramatic whisper. The orchestra, after literally starting out on the wrong foot (the muted trumpets were a full beat behind), made a nice recovery in an essentially accompanying role.
Ms. Schaefer’s other specialty is that earlier Viennese composer who wrote so cruelly for women. In order to make the leaps of intervallic faith necessary for Mozart, one must have vocal chords of iron and ice water in the veins. The boy genius never even made a distinction between soprano, mezzo and contralto, expecting any competent female to be comfortable with the complete tessitura. The concert aria is a lost art form that died with Beethoven. Not a song with orchestra nor an opera highlight, it is rather an heroic utterance often invoking the ancients (Berlioz’ The Death of Cleopatra is a concert aria in all but form). Ms. Schaefer was extremely impressive in her grandiloquence and let herself go a little more than she had in the Berg, replacing a gingerly mezzo forte with a courageous fortissimo. Although I confess to anticipating that the modern songs would have been her more shining moment, it was this powerful classical evocation that carried the evening.
Someone at the Phil office must have used the dartboard to program Romeo and Juliet as the second half of this concert, the only connection that I can make being that Verona is not far from Signor Gatti’s opera house in Bologna. Finally the orchestra had their chance to shine and they made the most of it. Although not without its flaws, this performance was both dramatic and sensuous, even if the piece as a whole is a bit episodic. Especially satisfying was Cynthia Phelps’ viola solo in the penultimate section.
Maestro is appearing today as the guest of honor at a luncheon hosted by the Consul General. He’s a bit young yet, but there is no reason why he cannot be presented as an Italian national treasure.
Frederick L. Kirshnit