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Music of Comfort and Cheer

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
01/22/2009 -  & Jan. 24, 27, 2009
Josef Haydn: Symphony No. 89 in F Major – Four arias: Se dal suo braccio oppresso; Teco lo guida, from Armida ; Il pensier sta negli oggetti; Chi spire e non spera, from L’anima del filosofo ossia Orfeo ed Euridice
Johannes Brahms: Serenade No 1 in D major, Opus 11

Thomas Quasthoff (Bass-baritone)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (Conductor)

Thomas Quasthoff (© Kasskara)

Riccardo Muti always receives a special welcome when appearing with the New York Philharmonic and for good reason. The Maestro is giving a special sheen to the Phil strings, and at times can be more vibrantly exciting than any conductor on the podium today. His real test, though, doesn’t come with his Scriabin and Bruckner and Liszt, but with a more modest symphony by Josef Haydn.

That was the test last night, and—since this is the 200th anniversary of Haydn's death—may be a test for even the most flamboyant conductors. But in programming the rarely heard Symphony No. 89 , Mr. Muti took on the most subtle of the later symphonies and created a delightful tapestry in pastel colors. Each movement has a bit of Sturm und Drang, but Papa Haydn knew this wasn’t the time for such emotion, and he quickly changes the emotion to more delicate, even whimsical notes. Mr. Muti gently took the orchestra through its paces, though his pacing was more deliberate than the vivace called for in the first movement. But this gave even more room for the surprising descants and solos.

The last movement could be a real challenge, as the end of each theme section is given the most surprising direction strascinando—which means “dragging”. The orchestra jumps, plays a bit slower (like going over a road bump!) several times. The humor is subtle but effective, and the Phil was anything but a drag in the delightful end.

Many of the audience came to hear the bass-baritone already a legend in singing circles, the great Thomas Quasthoff. His selections were operatic, but rarely performed in America, from the operas of Haydn. The two operas are opposites: Armida is heroic, religious, medieval and stentorian. Orpheus is bucolic, almost rustic, and (inevitably) reminiscent of Gluck, who had written his Orpheus thirty years before.

The arias may be new to many here, but the emotions and workmanship are splendid, and Mr. Quasthoff was easily up for the task. His sharp, dark-hued deeper baritone was on exhibition in the two Armida arias, both commanding, and sung with riveting perfection. The Orfeo arias showed that Mr. Quasthoff is a man with an enormous range, since these were sung very near the tenor range. They were gentler, more lyrical, and Mr. Quastoff performed them with the most mellifluous phrasing and stunningly beautiful tone.

If we are going to hear much Haydn this year, Mr. Quasthoff is the kind of singer who can make even the rarest operas come alive.

The final, longest and surprisingly impersonal work, was Brahms’ early Serenade. This was his “non-symphony”, before he was ready to follow in Beethoven’s mighty footsteps. It is also very very long (a good 53 minutes), and unfortunately perfect. In other words, all the Brahms harmonic and lyrical trademarks are here in the six movements, the instrumentation is perfect, the tunes are as cheerful as a serenade should be.

Everything good about Brahms is here, except the soul of Brahms himself. That had to wait until the symphonies. In the meantime, Maestro Muti was certainly engrossed in the music, he made the orchestra sail with the fluidity of a boat in Central Park, and ended with something approaching, if never quite fulfilling, the heroism of the deepest Brahms.

CODA: Many years ago, the late Karlheinz Stockhausen came through Bangkok, where I was living. He had just been in Japan for a few months, where he found, to his enormous surprise, that the Japanese had built him a huge studio with every single electronic machine of the time.

I asked him, in an interview, what it felt like when he saw all the machinery dedicated to him,

“I felt,” he said after some reflection, “that I am the first composer since Josef Haydn to command my own orchestra, to do with it what I pleased. Like Haydn, I could experiment, change, listen to hear the music I was trying. And like Haydn, I was the master of everything which my mind could conceive.”

Which says much about Stockhausen, and even more about Papa Haydn himself.

Harry Rolnick



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