On looking over this program of familiar works for cello and piano, the last thing one would call it is challenging. Yet, this past Sunday evening, David Finckel and Wu Han made it into something extremely challenging and enlightening. The duo — a husband-wife team, as is well-known — put so much feeling and energy into each piece that each became a world unto itself, formed by such radically different personalities, that it seemed miraculous that the players could make the transition from one to the other within a single evening. As for listening to such performances, I found myself so deeply immersed in these varied planets, that the journey between them seemed vast. Finckel and Wu Han approached them as differing thought processes in different languages.
The Boston Symphony played a few brilliant concerts in the shed in this anniversary year — not least Charles Dutoit’s two days of Berlioz, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, but the real excitement came from Ozawa Hall, as the TMC Fellows played with the full excitement of youth in a series of demanding concerts, all weighted towards the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in consistently stimulating and coherent programs, divided between the regular TMC schedule and the Festival of Contemporary Music. This was, in addition, the most satisfying FCM since the Elliott Carter Tribute, because the selection of composers not only had its own coherence in Oliver Knussen’s experience and taste
These last weeks there was French music everywhere. An excellent program of alternating Debussy and Messiaen songs at Tanglewood with the Tanglewood Fellows, William Bolcom and Joan Morris at Mohawk Trail Concerts, and a Bastille Day performance of Tartuffe the Imposter at Shakespeare and Company. A lot of ink has been spilled describing, defining, perhaps destroying what is called “French style.” Bad pedagogy of this sort tries to get you to do something less than what you would normally do with a phrase if it were not French music. There is much pontificating about accuracy in the pronouncing of the language. French singers that I have known seem much more concerned with the flow of the language and the connectedness of it. Because a piece of music is easy on the ear does not mean it is less affecting for the heart.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) is, like his friend Franz Liszt, an exemplary subject for the Bard Summer Music Festival: his world was large, and he was vitally connected with it. He was recognized as an important composer—the most important French composer—through most of his maturity. He studied with important teachers. He had many friends, many enemies, and many students. His musical output was encyclopaedic. Uncharacteristically for a French composer, he wrote in virtually every form there was to write in. His compositions are in many cases linked to prominent contemporary issues in politics, the arts, and science. He prepared an historical edition of the works of Rameau and revived works by Lully and Charpentier.
The Philadelphia Orchestra always WAS the sexiest!
Back in the publicity heyday of art music and the aftermath of Toscanini, Americans knew their five orchestras. It went like this: in Boston you listened to Charles Munch for Gallic excitability. In Chicago, Reiner ruled with a heart of stone but turned out warmer central European renditions than Toscanini had. You flocked to Bernstein for eruptive passion and disreputable energy in New York. And at Severance Hall, in a state of penance, you submitted to the owlish purges of George Szell. But nothing seduced the listener so much as The Philadelphia Orchestra, under the direction of Eugene Ormandy.
By now everybody knows that the renowned Tokyo String Quartet will retire at the end of the 2012-13 season. The quartet was founded in 1969 at the Juilliard School of music by graduates of the Toho School of Music in Tokyo, where the founding members had studied with Professor Hideo Saito, who left a profound mark on their approach to music. They came to New York for further study with members of the Juilliard String Quartet. Since then, as one of the first Asian performing groups to acquire an international reputation, they have not only set the example for Japanese musicians in the world at large, they have set an international standard for chamber music playing and the string quartet in particular. The extraordinary efflorescence of string quartets today doubtless owes much to their example. Their playing has been distinguished by its beauty of tone, accuracy of intonation, and precision of ensemble, but, for all this perfection, they never fail to project a fully thought-out and felt conception of the composer’s intentions and the inner content of the music. Their playing is never dry, detached, or emptily virtuosic, and I have never left one of their performances feeling they had failed to go the limit with the music at hand.
Very few recordings really deserve to be called iconic, but the 1941 recording of Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, conducted by Roger Désormière, is one. Native speakers are part of its excellence. There is a kind of lightness in the orchestral textures which is usually thought of as French, but this aspect of the recording is frequently overstated. A direction in the conducting which keeps the pace nearly conversational is fundamental. Newer recordings of Pelléas are almost all slower, even much slower. This, like the first Böhm Frau ohne Schatten is a recording surrounded by war- and both have the atmosphere of artists striving to give their native musical cultures a permanence, when permanence is mortally threatened. It is a beautiful thing that in a culture surrounded and eventually occupied by horror, these artists have given us the version of Pelléas which is the most French.
The penultimate concert of the 2011 season at Tannery Pond was not only the occasion of one of Artistic Director Christian Steiner’s appearances as pianist, but the visit of an impressive and rather fascinating group of musicians from Southern California, the Arabella Ensemble, consisting of Lorenz Gamma, violin, Jennifer Langham, cello, Ming Tsu, piano. Mr. Steiner has enjoyed a long friendship with Ms. Langham, and they have played together often over the years. Lorenz Gamma and Ming Tsu are husband and wife. The three musicians of the Arabella Ensemble have markedly different personalities. Ms. Tsu takes a rather understated approach in her music-making, but the clarity and definition of her understanding of the music she is playing command one’s interest from the start, and there is no danger of her receding into the background. The playing of her husband, Lorenz Gamma, reflects a carefully considered, analytical musicianship. His phrasing was consistently elegant and clearly articulated. Jennifer Langham, the most outgoing of the players, played with warmth and energy, often with pungent attacks, which never distracted from the flow of her line. She appeared to function as the leader of the group, not so much through active dominance as as its heart. Often she seemed to share the lead with Mr. Gamma through exchanged glances.