The Eternal Masculine
Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony # 6
Dmitri Shostakovich: Cello Concerto # 1
Manuel de Falla: Suites from The Three-Cornered Hat
Jesus Lopez-Cobos (conductor)
When Gustave Holst published The Planets in 1914, several British conductors complained to him about the movement in 5/4 time, citing as their reason that it had only been twenty years since the premiere of the Symphony # 6 of Tchaikovsky and they still were not able to properly communicate its second movement, written in the same metrical signature. The story is illustrative of the Tchaikovskian dilemma: somewhere buried in the sugar cookie recipe there lies the heart of an inventive and innovative composer. This allegro con grazia is one of the most interesting essays in all of nineteenth century music, the time consistently accounted for as five beats to a measure, but the melody remaining steadfastly four-square throughout (the basic phrase being eight beats) and creating in this imbalance an unsettled darkness as if couples were waltzing on the edges of a mirrored prism. This slightly off feel is the forerunner of the diabolical waltzes of Prokofieff (it is no accident that both of these great symphonists made significant contributions to the ballet) and reminds the listener that the subject of the Tchaikovsky is ultimately and all-pervasively the most intense anguish.
Even the disparagers of Tchaikovsky cannot doubt his sincerity in the ”Pathetique” as he took his own life only nine days after conducting its premiere (the story that he was driven to suicide rather than reveal his homosexuality seeming highly probable even if perhaps apocryphal). Although there is no direct evidence of a connection between the two works, I hear the plan of Mahler’s 9th in every measure and the fact that both composers believed that they were about to die after completion of these respective valedictory pieces adds some steam to my argument. It is true that Mahler expressed displeasure when he initially heard this then new symphony in St. Petersburg, exclaiming that “…even the cat wouldn’t play with it…”, but it is also a fact that he conducted it more often than any other single work during his later years in New York. The danger in presenting Tchaikovsky and Mahler is in not staying on the right side of that razor-thin line between sentiment and sentimentality and falling into the abyss of conductorial excess (both the Russian and the Austrian can easily be defamed by maestros who wear their hearts too prominently on their sleeves).
Jesus Lopez-Cobos can certainly not be accused of any such misconduct. His Tchaikovsky is extremely muscular and his remarkably accurate and pronounced beat keeps his forces from wandering into plushness. Like von Karajan, he emphasizes the steadiness of the meter and this firm hand at the helm produces a finished product of finely phrased tautness which allows the listener to supply some of the emotion while they are enjoying the clear lines of the musical text. This is not to say that the orchestra does not sound “romantic” enough; it rather suggests the deeper feelings inherent in the work without ever degenerating into a shampoo commercial. The Cincinnati sound is a very lovely one, on a much higher plane than that of the New York Phil or the Boston Symphony. The strings are blended exquisitely, the brass strong and burnished in tone, the winds solid if unremarkable. Maestro’s confident hand navigated the 5/4 waters with ease and his wonderfully exciting celebration of the third movement made a believer of me (I had previously not regarded this section as of the same quality as the rest).
Shostakovich wrote his cello concerti for Rostropovich and, as such, filled them with powerfully percussive strokes befitting a man who played on his instrument as if it were a weapon. The resulting pieces are dripping with testosterone. Han-Na Chang did not seem to rise to this level of performance (and, before I am attacked by the politically correct police, I am in no way implying that this was the case because she is a woman) and further did not seem to be invested emotionally in the work. Her tone is adequately professional but I found her rather screechy in the long cadenza. Robin Graham performed yeoman service on the obbligato horn but was, for my taste, nowhere near assertive enough (whoops, another female performer!) and her vitally important final calls (the horn gets the last word) were swallowed by the tutti of the small accompanying orchestra.
The order of the program was at first glance bizarre (I had actually thought that it was printed wrong in the brochure). Beginning with the major Tchaikovsky symphony, the ensemble then presented the concerto and finally two small ballet suites. But Senor Lopez-Cobos knows his orchestra well and exhibited them with great pride and athleticism in the music of his countryman. My feelings for this composer are only tepid at best, but once again the Queen City Players taught me a valuable lesson. For sheer sonic exhilaration, this performance de Falla’d description.
Obviously buoyed by the unbridled enthusiasm of the crowd, Maestro announced that since this was his last ever appearance with his orchestra at Carnegie Hall (he is stepping down after this season) he wished to play one more piece of Spanish music and launched into another amazing rendition of de Falla in a dance from La Vida Breve. Again I was knocked out by the amount of musical power unleashed by this excellent group and leader. In terms of my own personal musical growth, the revelations about both Tchaikovsky and de Falla make this the most important concert that I have attended in a very long time. After fifteen seasons it may be time for Jesus Lopez-Cobos to say adios, but he will surely be missed.
Frederick L. Kirshnit