Tchaikovsky wrote Queen of Spades, in 1890, and one other opera, Iolanta, in 1891, near the end of his life after having promised never to write another opera because of the unpopularity of The Sorceress (1887). For theatre, these were very fertile years for Tchaikovsky. The Mariinksy first performed Sleeping Beauty in 1890 and Nutcracker in 1892. He wrote Queen of Spades at a Mozartean rate in Florence where it is said he composed the music faster than his brother Modest wrote and sent the libretto scene by scene. Perhaps living in Florence gave him enough distance from the darker, more repellent aspects of the story to avoid getting run down by it, but anyhow it seems a strange subject for him to choose, especially surprising to hear the incredibly lyrical music he created for it. The antihero Hermann is repellent, but for some of the beautiful music Tchaikovsky gave him, yet even so Hermann’s are not as beautiful as Don Giovanni’s arias (and duets), but I don’t believe Tchaikovsky thought or intended his music to be as beautiful as Mozart’s.
Rachmaninoff’s 4th Piano Concerto didn’t deserve to be cut. It seems to have received, in any version, the homeric epithet “Rachmaninoff’s least popular” since it wasn’t popular at the première (1927) and wasn’t much more loved after the revisions (1928 and 1941), but this is perhaps as much due to the immense and perennial popularity of the 2nd and 3rd as any intrinsic quality of the 4th, and the unpopular label seems now to be beginning to give the original version a little bit of underdog cred. The original longer version was only published in 2000, and this performance, according to the Sydney Symphony, is the first of this version in Australia. It is a fascinating case of audience expectations based on a composer’s perceived style and the composer worrying too much about pleasing them. Luckily the original was not lost. Even so it is not very long, though it does have a leisurely, operatic quality to its pacing, almost a Mahlerian pace, but with its drama turned in, more psychological and untidy than the other concerti, and so it is not as exciting as the other concerti. It does not have too solid a form holding it together, it doesn’t tell a ‘story’ with beginning middle and end as the others do more obviously. It is not linear, or at least it is taller than it is long with all those enormous, thick, rich chords which defy a simple analysis and the long runs of impossibly fast notes which are not exactly melodic — maybe more harmonic as they ring in that resonant Steinway piano — but the melodies in the piece with the exception of the opening one are more like fragments of leitmotif without staging to help explain them. The opening theme returns here and there but it seems odd in its return, almost an interruption of the of the pensive, contemplative revery of the music, almost like the sudden landing of an eagle, or an angel, or a strange golden shaft of light. But the 20th century romantic music doesn’t need a strict form since Rachmaninoff’s concept is not architectural or plastic. The wonderful thing about music is that you don’t have to worry whether it will stand up.
There is always something a little peculiar about opening week at the San Francisco Symphony. Audiences have been away for the summer and are distractible. The orchestra may sound a bit less used to itself than usual. Sunlight in the lobby is still too bright for anyone to settle down. And programming commonly amounts either to a Gala smorgasbord or a visit to Denny’s, but seldom manages subtlety for musical gourmets. No different this year, but with a few wacky touches from the peanut gallery — about which more in a moment.
I was looking forward to this concert to renew my acquaintance with this less familiar, but interesting work of Leonard Bernstein’s and in the expectation that Christoph Eschenbach and the BSO would give us an interesting “Pathétique” after Myung-Whun Chung’s fascinating, rather eccentric reading of last November.
In this special version of the popular annual “Tanglewood on Parade” concert, the 75th anniversary of the festival as we know it (more or less) was duly celebrated. On August 5, 1937, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed an all-Beethoven concert under Music Director Serge Koussevitzky. (I have already mentioned this in my review of the commemorative repreise of the same program on July 6.) This was the first concert of the Berkshire Symphonic Festival, as it was then known, both with the Boston Symphony and on the same property, Tanglewood, which has been the home of the orchestra ever since.
Stepping down a semitone at a time starting from Spohr’s E Major, seeming to gravitate to the famous Tchaikovsky sextet in D Minor, this group of young musicians brings quite an ambitious program. Despite some uneven playing of the first piece, they became stronger and stronger to give a very satisfying take on the last.
They dance with a keen sense of drama with a very fine feeling for the gestures on which a ballet turns. They have a special sense for the overarching form and thrust of the choreographer’s idea for each piece they danced, so the build-up of dramatic tension could be gradual, the feelings brought to each movement fitting and those important gestures could fit in in a restrained, even understated way. The dancers tend to give as much attention to their port à bras, which was very plastic, very tactile, as if pushing against the thickness of the atmosphere around them, as their leg- and foot-work, also with a careful attention to line, especially in the groupings at the cadence of a scene. They are extremely absorbing, giving something much more than the display of a Gala performance, despite the over-excited opening night audience.
I caught recently one of the concerts given in Davies Hall by the New York Philharmonic, my old hometown band, as part of our 100th Anniversary Season. It was enough to set me thinking again about the role a good hall plays in shaping the fame of an ensemble.
Fifty years of struggle with the Lincoln Center acoustic has clearly left its mark on the New York orchestra’s reputation — though I must say not on the quality of its playing — which remains stunningly world class. But one is surprised to find in the sonority a burnished warmth and tonal delicacy similar to that of the Cleveland Orchestra. Understated tonal virtues have seldom been possible at Broadway and 65th Street. At least in the way we think of the orchestra. But they were notable here and speak well of Alan Gilbert’s Music Directorship.