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Thinking Big

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
04/16/2004 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach (orch. Webern): Ricercare
Alban Berg: Violin Concerto
Johannes Brahms (orch. Schoenberg): Piano Quartet # 1

Pinchas Zukerman (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Asher Fisch (conductor)

“You don’t have technique when you can neatly
imitate something: technique has you.”

Arnold Schoenberg

Quick, what’s your favorite symphony of the last century? Shostakovich 5, Mahler 2, Sibelius 7? As I have stated in these pages before, mine is the Fifth of Serge Prokofieff, but a strong case can also be made for the Schoenberg re-working of the Piano Quartet in G Minor of Johannes Brahms. This unique essay is in every sense a completed symphonic masterpiece, combining Brahmsian thickness of orchestral thought and incredible melodic invention with Januarian mid-20th century sonorous sensibilities and expression looking forward and backward simultaneously. Brahms endowed the original with a symphonic shape and form as well as thickness of voice; Schoenberg added balance and amazing color to forge an entirely new composition. The result is as exciting, relevant, intriguing and intricate as any score ever graced with the heading of “symphony”.

The musical world is divided into two parts: those who play the piano and those who don’t. Brahms wrote his large-scale chamber works with a decidedly heavy hand leaning on the keyboard (with himself, of course, as soloist), whereas Schoenberg was a self-taught cellist who suffered to compete with the more strident and dominant pianoforte (with the emphasis on forte). When his friend and fellow southern Californian Otto Klemperer suggested a new piece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic that would be non-threatening to the Hollywood Bowl crowd, Schoenberg pounced. The resultant orchestral masterpiece divides the dominance throughout, including parts for a truly inspired percussion section. What would the New York Philharmonic, with a substitute conductor, do with such an inspired gift?

Actually, quite a bit. Asher Fisch, music director of the Israeli Opera, stepped in on very short notice when home-grown maestro Alan Gilbert bowed out to attend the birth of his child in Sweden. Fisch showed that he was indeed in water by allowing his string section to breathe deeply in the long melodic lines of the first movement, although, this being the Phil, there was often the wayward individual note caught in the undertow. The new conductor was also adept at emphasizing the nobility of the martial section, a Schoenberg innovation that changes the mood significantly from the original chamber piece. Although there had been a palpable lack of propulsion in the intermezzo, the “Gypsy” rondo (much more of an Hungarian tune, but Brahms was no ethnomusicologist) was suitably exciting. That delicious penultimate moment when the solo violin, viola and cello perform as three quarters of the Brahms convocation, seeming to say that they can play very well without the piano, thank you very much, was delicately contrasted to the bombast of the ensemble as a whole, and the crowd, expertly whipped into a frenzy, exploded with applause and cheers at the wild dance’s climax. Wait, let me state that once again: a work of Arnold Schoenberg was enthusiastically received in 21st century New York. Pinch me.

The first half of the evening was a study in contrast. The Webern orchestration of Bach was sensitively handled, the silences so important to its realization managed correctly, the pointillistic intonation of the naked solo instruments throughout the orchestra masterful (much preferable to the Vienna version that this reviewer heard this season under Ozawa). However, the Berg Concerto was unfocused and muddy, the troops often seeming to march into, rather than away from, each other. Soloist Pinchas Zukerman displayed his unfamiliarity with the piece first by reading from a printed part and then by running into technical troubles, particularly in those passages that combine bowing and left hand pizzicato. His version was burnished and romantic in tone (the polar opposite of Gil Shaham’s anorexic introspection with the San Francisco Symphony a few weeks ago) and yet dispassionate and routine in emotional scope. With the Phil turning Berg’s dodecaphonic rows into Swiss cheese, the result was interpretive and harmonic chaos. Small wonder that many of the patrons left at the interval, missing the much more captivating Schoenberg to come.

Forty years ago, I would have dubbed a concert of Second Viennese music that relied so heavily on tonal connections with the past as bourgeois. However, today I think of it more as a golden proselytizing opportunity. Waiting for a cab after the show, my companion and I heard several conversations expressing excitement and interest in the Schoenberg, and that is a good thing. I’m sure that Asher Fisch would agree. Perhaps, like Mr. Gilbert, we too were witnessing a birth. After all, they can’t limp along with Lorin Maazel forever.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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