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Czechs and Balances

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
03/26/2000 -  
Hans Krasa: Symphony
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 7

Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo-soprano)
Czech Philharmonic
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)

No orchestra has as long a history with the magnificent "Song of the Night" as the Czech Philharmonic, who premiered it under the composer's baton in 1908. From the time of Mozart, Prague had been to Vienna what New Haven was to Broadway, the place where major works were tried out before their ascendancy onto the world stage. Mahler himself conducted Don Giovanni there with a sense of historical significance, since Mozart had mounted its first performance in this seemingly oldest of Old World capitals. The Symphony # 7 has an odd critical history with even some of the most ardent Mahlerites feeling obliged to apologize for it (Bernstein called it the "ugly stepchild"). Blissfully unaware of this body of opinion, I gravitated to it as a child and have always found it to be the greatest and most complex work of the master (my two sons have had similar experiences). Perhaps it takes the innocence of a child to appreciate this happiest of all of the canvasses of this particular "maler". We critics tend to be a curmudgeonly lot so we may be too old in our thinking to give it its due.

In any event, today's performance by the Czech Philharmonic was a good one. Solid and tight, this homogenous team, all with the same ethnic background, truly do play as a unit (not only are there no "foreigners" in the orchestra, but I counted only three women and two of them were the harpists). They play with technical intensity but I was concerned that there was perhaps a dearth of intellectual or emotional intensity in Maestro Ashkenazy's interpretation. Nowhere did I feel grabbed by the experience, even in the extremely well done Schattenhaft movement with its many precise startings and stoppings and I can only conclude that the conductor was going more for technical perfection than artistic communication. There were some intonational and attack problems, particularly in the brass section, and the lovely serenade that is the fourth movement was surrealistically akimbo since the mandolin player tended to be an entire beat behind, exuding a certain grotesquerie that put me in mind of the street musicians in Visconti's "Death in Venice". Ashkenazy also ignored the grand pause in the opening movement and to my mind this left his sense of the shape of the piece as a whole in question. But it was still a good effort, although not so exciting as to make the crowd stand up and scream at the end (this actually can happen at a great live performance).

One of the darkest associations between Czechoslovakia and classical music is the hideous memory of Terezin, where many great musicians were interred by the Nazi murderers and trotted out for the world press as living in a civilized, artistic ghetto. Most of these accomplished artists were killed at Auschwitz, including the Zemlinsky student Hans Krasa. Most famous for his children's opera Brundibar, Krasa was an eclectic who wrote some delightful pieces and premiered some of them in Paris before the nightmare descended upon him. His Symphony for small orchestra is great fun, running the gamut from impressionism to expressionism in just a few short, lighthearted strokes. It is an embodiment of the insouciance which was Paris in the '20's and Ms. Hellekant imbued her section with just the right Schoenbergian sprechstimme.

Next season Leon Botstein will conduct the 7th under the heading "Remembrances of Things Past". In many ways, this great work of music is an essay on memory and nostalgia and, hopefully, will someday find its proper place in the pantheon of Mahler's symphonies, not as the work of a kappellmeister but rather the ardent spawn of a creative genius.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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