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Ancient Pictures

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
01/10/2008 -  and January 11, 12
Hector Berlioz: Overture to Benvenuto Cellini – La Mort de Cléopâtre
Serge Prokofiev: Seventh Symphony – Scythian Suite

Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (conductor)

The last ten days have become a de facto Lorin Maazel marathon period, with the Metropolitan Opera and, last night, the Philharmonic. But like a great actor playing several roles, the conductor left the hallowed (if heavy) haven of Valhalla, and made the change to a gallery filled with more exotic art.

Three of the four pieces were pure orchestral paintings, each of an era far removed from the life of the composer. Serge Prokofiev painted a picture of the Scythian people - a tribe so fierce and violent that they made Genghis and Kublai Khan seem like the Munchkins of Oz. Berlioz painted a riotous 16th Century Roman festival and then went back 1,800 years to Alexandria and Queen Cleopatra.

The odd piece out was Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony, which Maazel surveyed with the elegance and decorum which is deserved. Neither adjective is usually used for the Russian, but in the Seventh, he was perhaps depressed, certainly tired. Some of the themes must have been taken from Prokofiev’s endless notebooks, the orchestral effects were classy but limited to the extremes of register (high winds against low strings), and the rhythms sounding more like Tchaikovsky than this one-time enfant terrible.

No such words could describe the Scythian Suite, Prokofiev’s “answer” to Stravinsky’s Sacre. There was, alas, no comparison. Stravinsky was precise, sharp, with pinprick jabs at savagery. Prokofiev’s was a muscular burn-down-the-village orchestration. Aiming for exoticism, he set some two - or three - note themes heavy with bass drum pounding, like a Franz Waxman cowboy-and-Indian movie score. Prokofiev made the effort to be daring back in 1915, but it would take a few years in Paris before his courage became channeled.

The most remarkable single work of the evening was the “lyric scene” (actually a solo cantata), La Mort de Cléopâtre, written by Hector Berlioz as a competition piece when he was barely 24 years old. The competing composers all worked with the same poem, which while probably not brilliant in French, was historically accurate. The Queen may have been known for her beauty, but to her Alexandrian contemporaries, she was a linguist (apparently nine or ten languages), and a scholar who frequented many of the Alexandrian libraries. She also (as mentioned in the words here) was upset that the Romans were destroying the religion of her youth, and that her two Roman emperor lovers were now gone.

Musically, it is astonishingly good. Berlioz in his pride thought that the prize would be his no matter what he wrote, so he “painted” this poem with the most stirring effects. His “swaying of the sea” theme was later used in Benvenuto Cellini (so was earlier heard in the evening). Other sections were re-composed for La damnation de Faust and La symphonie fantastique. But this was almost irrelevant, for the drama of the entire work was hypnotic.

Susan Graham, as regal and stately as the Queen herself, has an amazing high range, which was clear, voluminous, dramatic. Her lower notes were unsteady and at times off key. This could be forgivable, since the score calls for her to sing sotto voce, con terrrore. The last section, where the asp’s poison takes effect is as avant-garde as anything Berlioz ever wrote, with orchestral stabs and throbs, and sighs from the singer and orchestra. The final bass notes with a tap from the cellos were the fitting gloomy climax.

More festive—literally—was the opener of the night, Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini overture, played with the right pizzazz by Maazel, with elegant solos from the winds, and sleight-of-hand magic from the all-important trombones.

ERRATUM: In Tuesday’s review of Die Walküre at the Met, the role of Sieglinde was assigned to “American Adrianne Pieczonka.” One should have instinctively recognized that a soprano with the cleanliness of a Toronto suburb, the color of fresh Nova Scotia salmon, and the lyrical emotion of a British Columbia humpback calling her calf could only be Canadian. The error is regretted.

Harry Rolnick



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