It wouldn’t necessarily be very difficult for historic performance practice to degenerate into the “flavor of the month” endlessly seeking novelty, ironically enough, in newest old bizarre instrument never before heard by modern ears, or into a cliquey “earlier than thou” competition. Perhaps we are just beyond this stage, or perhaps the 20 years since Pamela Poulin’s exciting discovery of the appearance of Anton Stadler’s basset clarinet — we haven’t found a surviving original specimen of the ephemeral instrument — has given time for experimentation and to rediscover the technique and the soul of the instrument and the “novelty” part has worn off a bit. The beauty of the basset clarinet’s voice, not so much unfamiliar or even unique, as even more clarinetish than a usual clarinet, is exactly fitting to Mozart’s music, giving a fascinating insight into the idea that a period’s instrumentarium exactly befits the period’s music, and the question whether the instruments evolve to fit the new music or the music evolves to take advantage of the new instruments, or both at once. The clarinet generally speaking having such a “normal” tone between the extremes of the more penetrating and sharp older cousin oboe and small-bird-like ancient cousin flute, fills in an aching space in the orchestra and makes it hard to believe (in retrospect) that it became a regular in european orchestras as late as it did. Indeed Mozart’s life coincided with this change. His letters home from Mannheim, where he first encountered clarinets in orchestral music, read like a revelation he was so enthusiastic about them, and he immediately took to composing in the new woodwind texture. Anton Stadler (his son Johann played the other clarinet in some of Mozart’s symphonies, as in Mozart’s last public concert in early 1791) as a friend and “early adopter,” or perhaps only adopter, of the basset clarinet, such a perfect solo instrument, too perfect, at least for its virtuosic possibilities but more importantly for its expressive voice, no doubt created inspiration and opportunity to write a concerto for it. It is also thought that Mozart and Stadler intended a basset clarinet for the clarinet quintet of two years before (K. 581). Perhaps a shade of that original inspiration sparks performers today. Mozart hadn’t written a concerto for three years (the last piano concerto K. 595 was probably begun in 1788 and finished in late 1790[1. see H. C. Robbins Landon’s 1791: Mozart’s Last Year]), having practically “perfected” the piano concerto (but no doubt he could have had more ideas, judging from the depth of those he wrote), the following concerto turned out to be for clarinet. If the violin concerto would take the 19th century to “perfect” — according to conventional wisdom anyhow — Madeleine Easton’s performance of Mozart’s third violin concerto brought that notion into question (see below). And between the very human piano and violin, it is not common to hear concertos for the stringless family, so it is surprising and amazing to hear such a satisfying concerto for clarinet, as satisfying as any for piano or violin, or at the least it distracts a listener from making the comparison. This is in a large way due to the presence of the resurrected basset clarinet in such a deeply satisfying performance with such a close, understanding rapport between the less familiar clarinet and the more familiar orchestral members.
Before Diaghilev decided to bring Russian art to the west, starting with his exhibition of Russian art in Paris in 1906, in 1908 bringing Chaliapin to Paris to sing Boris Godinov, and then his formation of the Ballets Russes, first performing in Paris in 1909, unadulterated, purely Russian art was little known or appreciated outside asia. Vast Russia, except for its toe in Europe was perhaps considered something of a cultural backwater in Europe. Diaghilev didn’t hold back in bringing this unadulterated Russian art, also discovering and hiring young or little known artists — like Stravinsky — and this was part of his art’s huge appeal in west to this day. So when Stravinsky visited the far, far East — Australia — in 1961, it was perhaps not so far from his roots nor so incongruous. Traditional indigenous Russian or central asian art was often an influence in the set designs and style of Bakst, Benois, Golovin, Roerich and the others, costumes sometimes used original traditional textiles (like the ikat fabrics bought from nomadic traders at St Petersburg markets for the costumes for the Polostvian dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor), the choreography was sometimes classical in the best Petipan Franco-russian tradition preserved in the imperial Maryinksy school, but was often entirely new in style, especially Vaslav Nijinsky’s for the Rite of Spring, though often borrowing from traditional, indigenous Russian dance, as in Firebird and Petroushka. Western audiences seemed unconsciously to understand this bizarre new art and went crazy for it, famously starting riots and booing, also becoming most fashionable tickets to have.
The concert pulled us away from a particularly beautiful sunset over Sydney with Cray-Pas pink-crimson streaks and squiggles and a new moon following closely behind the sun, sparing us the feeling of mono no aware of a finished sunset. Zarathustra gave us maybe a more conventional sunset’s “riot of color”, or rather sunrise, to complete Vladimir Ashkenazy’s three concert series of Germanic music which opened the Sydney Symphony’s 2012 season. This small selection of major Strauss symphonies if not totally satisfying and complete in itself, gives one an urge to seek out more Strauss in order to seek out more in Strauss. Then again symphonic music can be enjoyed as a riot of marvelous sounds. Ashkenazy’s pairings in the three concerts of a tightly formed Beethoven piece — The Ninth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Coriolan Overture, respectively — with a more spread-out Strauss piece (with the exception of Metamorphosen), perhaps more fun to conduct than to listen to at times, and the music with Vladimir Ashkenazy’s enthusiasm for it, speaks for itself and justifies itself. Anyway, it is hard to speak generally about Strauss since he is quite varied even within one piece.
Hats off, ladies and Gentlemen! A conductor! And a great symphony!
Vasily Petrenko’s recent electrifying week with the San Francisco Symphony reminds the listener that Gustavo Dudamel is not the sole “conducting animal” to be found on the musical circuit these days. Esa-Pekka Salonen coined the term a while back, with the impassioned Venezuelan in mind. And indeed, Dudamel is the sort of refreshing performer who has the winds jumping to their feet like jazz musicians and bass players twirling their instruments. He is all about emotion as vitality. But physically, apart from the energy with which he beats time, his manner is unremarkable.
The fascination of Petrenko, by contrast, is his ability to reflect every quivering moment of the music somewhere on his face or body, as though he were a disembodied hologram. We joke about people who are “double-jointed.” But Vasily Petrenko might as well be quadruple-sprung and then some…this is a man who’d have no trouble tapping three heads, rubbing five tummies and signalling with numerous eyebrows at the same time!
After Friday’s intelligently conceived, but incompletely realized Pathétique Maestro Levine deserved a personal triumph, I thought, and it came, not quite by surprise, in the form of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps. His performances of this work have been highly regarded for years, most recently in December of last year, when it was performed as a hundredth-birthday tribute to Elliott Carter, whose career was shaped by a performance of the work he heard in his youth. Hence, this afternoon, every detail was thoroughly polished.