The Russians Were Coming! The Russians Were Coming!
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
03/31/2011 - & April 1, 2*, 2011
Sergei Prokofiev: Overture in B-flat Major “American”, op. 42
Sofia Gubaidulina: In Tempus Praesens (New York Premiere)
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2, “Little Russian”, op. 17
Anne-Sophie Mutter (Violin)
New York Philharmonic, Michael Tilson Thomas (Conductor)
M. Tilson Thomas (© Polyphonic.org)
Michael Tilson Thomas takes enormous pride both in his Russian heritage, and his familiarity with Russian emigrée figures of the West Coast when growing up. Thus, the three Russian works, from three different eras, played by the New York Philharmonic this week, were metaphorically Beluga caviar for himself and his audience.
The most challenging was a New York premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Second Violin Concerto. Ironic that we just received it, since Anne-Sophie Mutter, for whom it was written, has been performing it internationally since its premiere four years ago, and a documentary made about the music.
Ms. Gubaidulina has been a mighty force in Russian music for the past four decades, even more so when one realizes that in a country of secular divisions, she encompasses virtually every group. From a Tatar family, her grandfather was a Muslim Mullah, and her mother was of Russian, Polish and Jewish heritage.
“I”, she describes herself, “am the place where East meets West.”
Well, not exactly. Her lengthy but always intriguing concerto here, subtitled “For The Present Time”, was distinctly Western, though the mysteries of its composition owe much to Eastern Kabbala thinking. Sofia Gubaidulina refers to the iconic similarity of her name, Anne-Sophie Mutter’s name and Saint Sofia. She speaks of the similar experience of “religious experience, sleep and art” in experiencing the present time. And she describes the “pinnacle of the pyramid” where the “ritual sacrifice” takes place in the music.
A. S. Mutter (©Courtesy of the artist)
I did not experience that shape at first hearing, and certainly didn’t hear a ritual sacrifice. But in this long drawn-out yet always mesmerizing work, one could have inserted many an enigma, many a reference to the esoteric and the recondite.
The brutal orchestral figures, the chords coming from nowhere, the melodies played in the highest register of Ms. Mutter’s violin, the unusual orchestration lacking violins but including nine 5-stringed double basses, all signified something. Yet we should actually content ourselves with the significance of the music itself, a gorgeous tapestry of colors and rhythms.
Strangely, far more “exotic” were the first notes of Prokofiev’s “American” Overture, composed in 1926 originally for the strangest orchestra, including two harps, winds, a celesta, two trumpets and three double basses. That was revised later (alas!), but the work now, opening the program, was a delicious dish for the jaunty Mr. Thomas. The themes were a bit Asian (no Americanisms at all), they fluttered, were repeated, and in eight minutes Mr. Prokofiev said what he had to say.
The climax was Tchaikovsky without tears without “pathetique” emotions, and was all martial, folk and triumph. This Second Symphony, even more than 1812 was Tchaikovsky at his most nationalistic. Not telling a story but letting the hymns, marches and Ukrainian songs–the opening played brilliantly by First Horn Philip Myers–and the orchestra ending in blazing fanfares.
I doubt if the Grosse Fuge or B Minor Mass or Mozart Requiem would have received such loud, passionate applause, but Mr. Thomas’ commitment to the early work was convincing and enthusiastic.