The job of a critic has two elements: the first is to report the facts of a performance: what was played, by whom, and what the music and performance were like in objective terms, as far as possible (never fully successful); and the second is to offer some judgments about the quality of both music and performance. This second part is fraught with difficulties: judgments are necessarily subjective, and yet in order for them to be useful to the reader, they need to be justified in terms of the values upon which they are based, especially since the critic is fully aware that his/her long-held prejudices (euphemistically called convictions) are not necessarily shared by readers.
Brahms’ Fourth must stand with a very small handful of other works at the apex of symphonic composition. It represents the essence of “symphonism,” that is, the use of the fully developed romantic orchestra as a unified, full-throated body expressing a completely coherent and integrated musical discourse, in serious purpose comparable to great works of philosophical thought. It is difficult not to think in philosophical terms when encountering this work, especially as performed by the TMC Orchestra under the hands of nonagenarian Herbert Blomstedt, whose control over the flow of such expansive structures is notable among today’s conductors. Words like “austere,” “severe,” “dark,” and “stern” appear regularly in the literature to warn listeners that they are in for a challenging experience with this symphony. One could add “sustained,” “coherent,” “integrated,” “interconnected,” “deeply moving” and, finally, “tragic.” There are few other symphonies that insist on the minor modality to the bitter end: Haydn’s Symphony no. 49 (“La Passione”), Mahler’s Sixth (“Tragic”), and Vaughan-Williams’ Fourth and Sixth may be the best-known examples, and only Haydn displays the same structural necessity and lack of ambivalence about such a conclusion as Brahms.
TMC orchestra performances tend to be somewhat haphazard assortments of repertory, mostly of high quality, but diverse rather than coherent as programs. Monday night’s concert was different: there were resonances among the works that indicated a triangle of influences and artistic interests with the apex being in the music of British composer Thomas Adès, who conducted half of the program.
The Merchant of Venice has always been called a problem play. I might call it a miracle play. Here is why. There is a role in this play which dominates—with fewer than 350 lines. In the hands of Jonathan Epstein, Shylock was believable, unavoidable. It is important to remember that the play comes to an end without Shylock, although there is some of his equivocation in his daughter, clearly. In Mr. Epstein’s performance I heard a rare understanding of how the role finds its power. His rich voice ranged very little from loud to soft, fast to slow.
The excellent Stephane Denève chose two works of Hector Berlioz for his TMCO concert. Wholly remarkable was a performance of Les Nuits d’Été. The maestro gave these songs a sound I’ve never heard before. It was ravishingly quiet to begin with, not unlike the nearly silent playing Simon Rattle can achieve in his Mahler performances. It was like something in the air. Even more unforgettable was the coaching he had done with the young singers, each a Fellow of the Tanglewood Music Center. So diaphanous was the orchestral environment for each of the songs, the young voices could merely whisper and be heard. “Au Cimitière” in particular benefitted from this. Sara Lemesh said the words as much as she spoke them.
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.