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.
On Friday night as evening approached, a quintet of wind players from the Boston Symphony, joined by excellent pianist Jonathan Bass, set the mild summer air of Ozawa Hall in motion with an elegant program of wind music well-suited to assist listeners transition from the pleasures of a perfect day in the Berkshires to the orchestral depths of tragedy, passion, and triumph by nightfall. Mozart initiated both programs with elegant, joyful, and subtly profound works composed at the apex of his career: the piano and winds quintet, which he professed to be his favorite among works composed to that point, and the concerto, no. 22, which (along with no. 23) stands unostentatiously between better-known works on either side (nos. 20 and 21 preceding, nos. 24 and 25 following).
It is simple enough to dismiss the once vital Schenectady New York, with the dwindling fortunes of General Electric. The town with a hard-to-pronounce name famously malapropped in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New Yorkwas once the seat of the largest employer and economic force in the upstate New York region. The fates have been unkind, and its poor environmental record coupled with challenges transitioning to renewable energy has dealt a fatal blow.
Reinhold Glière was fortunate to thrive under Soviet Communism. A long-limbed bardic style, featuring haunting melodies evoking the Russian ecclesiastical past, ruffled no political feathers. Nor did velvety explorations of Scriabin-influenced chromaticism. He was never purged. But Glière paid a price for fame in the world of democracy and commerce, it would seem. His greatest work, the 1912 Mahler-length Symphony No. 3, “Il’ya Muromets”, was deemed “too long” for the concert hall in America. To ensure its presentation, Leopold Stokowski persuaded the composer to pare it down drastically, and it was in this incomplete condition that the work took root in Philadelphia and in American ears.
“Let me please introduce myself. I am a gentleman of wealth and taste. And I laid traps for troubadours….” So goes the Rolling Stones song, Sympathy for the Devil. Danish audiences never quite knew what to make of Rued Langgaard, at once romantic composer and obsessive throwback to apocalyptic Christianity. His Sixth Symphony, officially termed “The Heaven-Rending,” later came to be known as “The Antichrist.” The Danes, hearing the struggle in his music and perhaps a bit fundamentalist at the time, were never sure on which side Langgaard stood! Langgaard was passionately convinced Satan operated in modern life as power behind the scenes, devilishly pulling the strings of music, culture and government—and was ultimately responsible for the First World War. A special culprit and convert to this evil, in Langgaard’s eyes, was Carl Nielsen, the celebrated Danish composer of his day, whose modernism and humanism Langgaard alternately copied and excoriated. These views and other personal eccentricities, plus music which over time gradually became episodic and minimalistic, ensured Langgaard would remain unpopular in his home country.
I’ve been harping on acoustics in my past few reviews, not only as a personal crotchet (which I must own), but because the issue has been cropping up of its own accord. It’s particularly frustrating that Chapin Hall at Williams is so fine to look at, while its sound it is so dismal, but to be fair, it was built for academic pomp, not music. What’s more the acoustically outstanding auditorium at the Clark is not often used for music. However, Berkshire County people are lucky to be in easy reach of several halls which are among the best in the worldÃ‚Â—I mean not only Symphony Hall in Boston, or the wonderful Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, but Mechanics Hall in Worcester (1857, sadly underused for music), the Sosnoff Theater at Bard’s Fisher Center (2003), which I’ve already discussed on several occasions, and the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, also on the Hudson, built between 1871 and 1875 to the designs of George B. Post. It’s not the only concert hall to have been constructed as a multipurpose building, but its vaulted roof and Greek temple which dominate the rooftops and steeples of this once grand commercial city is unusual. Its acoustics are legendary, and I’ve wanted to hear music there for some time. I’m grateful that my responsibilities to BFA have allowed me to give it a priority, and I’ll most certainly come back regularly to hear this great hall, the excellent Albany Symphony, and as many as possible of the other compelling events it hosts.
If I tell you here is the side of Brahms which kept a score of Parsifal open on his piano, I think we are more than halfway to understanding what Daniel Barenboim has tried to do with this composer and now achieves more fully and authentically than in his Chicago Symphony cycle recorded for Erato several decades ago. The Staatskapelle Berlin has always been a Brahms orchestra of the old school, as Otmar Suitner’s 1984 digital cycle for Berlin Classics, recorded in the Lukaskirche, wonderfully demonstrated, but Barenboim has maintained and encouraged its nutty/creamy sonority to new levels of evocative lushness and subtle woodwind tone coloration. He doesn’t aim to compete for brilliance with the Berlin Philharmonic. Indeed, the sound here boasts a theatrical darkness and elision, first, foremost and nearly always. I imagine this still resembles the burnished sonority my German father heard in Berlin before the First World War.