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24.3.06

No Motive for Melody - The Complementary Troubles of M. Wagner and S. Rachmaninov

Once again we thank Robert R. Reilly for lending ears, pen and wit to ionarts - and congratulate his courage to face down all lovers of Rachmaninov.


Leonard SlatkinThursday night, Leonard Slatkin and the NSO were in top form for a largely Romantic evening of Edward Elgar and Sergei Rachmaninoff, interspersed with the Washington première of a new Piano Concerto, Extremity of Sky, by Melinda Wagner.

Slatkin excels at Elgar (recall the luminous performance of the Enigma Variations last year), so it is a surprise to realize that this was the NSO’s very first go at the Introduction and Allegro for String Quartet and String Orchestra. Slatkin began with a dreamy, gentle, rippling sort of approach, laying a lyrical base for the intensity that develops later. Despite the clogged drain potential of massed strings simulating a Baroque Concerto Grosso style (Handel), the performance was close to diaphanous, with a fleet kind of Mendelssohnian quality in parts of the latter half. Slatkin did not let emotion swamp the exquisite lyricism.

Wagner’s Concerto, composed in 2001, had a raucous opening movement, with winds gurgling and brass whooping, which kept the audience in suspense for the main theme to develop out of the opening motif, announced by Emanuel Ax at the piano. It was a long wait. After showing off the orchestral colors, enhanced by all sorts of percussion – bell tree, bongos, chimes, bell plates, water gong, wood blocks, etc. (we are so far into the computer age, I had not heard the ‘ding’ of typewriter return simulated in a long time) -- the show turned to rhythm, complete with notes of jazz. A more nocturnal mood descended and, then more syncopated rhythms, accentuated by sharp, orchestral snaps and crackles.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, From NSO, Another Heaping Helping of Rachmaninoff (Washington Post, March 24)
The tease continued. Still no main theme, only fragments, with long scalar runs on the piano, offset by percussive attacks. With the second movement, the word “gestural” occurred to me, which I later saw in Wagner’s notes as referring to the first movement. After a subdued opening, Ax hammered away at the suggestion of big, pseudo-Romantic theme. A wonderfully doleful line developed in the cello, the closet to a long-lined theme Wagner allowed. Unfortunately, I did not hear it again. The ‘Prayer-chain” movement brought to mind “chain” as the operating idea – a succession of effects. There is no question that Wagner has an ear for brilliant orchestration and an enlivening sense of rhythm but, without thematic coherence, where does all this go? Maybe Janáček could pull something like this off with only brief motifs, but he was, well, Janáček. As far as I could tell, Ax played well.
In a small survey at half time, the consensus seemed that this was a.) a concerto lacking a theme, b.) better than most recently played new music (Ramírez, Sierra, Higdon, Schwantner) and c.) more tepidly received than plenty worse music has been.


available at Amazon
S.Rachmaninoff, Symphony No.2,
M.Pletnev / RNO,
DG

After Wagner, any nostalgia for long-lined themes was satisfied by the beautiful performance of the Rachmaninov Second, though with the attendant danger of a glucose overdose. Slatkin and the NSO were able to throw around giant slabs of sound when called upon to so, and played pianissimo so exquisitely that the audience could not restrain itself from applauding – and not by mistake! – at the end of the Adagio movement. It was a very fine performance of a symphony Slatkin clearly loves. [Last year’s performance was a strong point of the season, too. –jfl.]

Now, I will commit heresy. This is gorgeous music, but it is too gorgeous. It does not make me swoon so much as make me feel that I am supposed to be swooning. I find the epiphanies in Rachmaninoff to be emotionally flabby – more spine needed. He never descends into hysteria like the worst of Tchaikovsky, but neither does he achieve the depth nor reach the transcendent heights of, say, Sibelius, whom he occasionally sounds like. Sometimes, I think, with Rachmaninoff, the music is in service to the melody, rather than the melody being in service to the music. I understand how close he gets to greatness. I only wish he got there.

7 comments:

Margarita said...

“Now, I will commit heresy.”

As long as you are aware of it… and admit it…

p.s. I understand how close one gets to understanding and appreciating the music of Rachmaninov. I only wish he got closer... :)

Thanks for the review!

Garth Trinkl said...

Very fine review, Jens, and interesting thoughts on melody and the low ratio of epiphanies to length in Rachmaninoff. I attended and got more from the Melinda Wagner than I had expected, and less from the Rachmaninoff than I had hoped for this time round. (The "epiphanies" of the Rachmaninoff Adagio happened to occur at the exact same time that Putin and Lukashenka were carting off the few hundred Belarusian freedom demonstrators in Minsk in the freezing dark of night there.)

Also, could you check your Ramírez NSO new music reference. Did I miss something, or are you perhaps thinking of the Roberto Sierra Missa Latina (Missa Pro Pax) performed by the NSO and Choral Arts Society in February?

Thanks again for all the expert reviews.

jfl said...

Thanks for the kind words, Garth -- alas the review was written (except a few additions) by Robert R. Reilly. I forgot to include Sierra in the 'bad-new-music' list, true... but the Ramirez (not NSO, which I don't claim, anyway) was pretty bad, too.

Belarus: It would be easier to feel empathy for that part of the world if the population (save for a few gutsy students) didn't actually WANT Lukashenka. Sadly, he wouldn't even have had to rig the vote to get a comfortable majority.

Garth Trinkl said...

My sincere apologies to Mr Reilly for my mistake. Thank you Mr Reilly for your expert contribution ...

I didn't think the Roberto Sierra "Missa" was at all bad, only very conservative and with a rather unsatisfactory folk-inflected, happy ending. [Didn't the Post call the work a masterpiece?] Has Mr Reilly reviewed this work, which I believe aspires to be a American sacred masterpiece?

*

Jens, I will disagree with you as to your final sentence. Under systematic vote-rigging in Belarus, we do not now know voters actual preferences (to phrase it in political choice terms). Belarusian independent analysts do point to the huge political alienation which led up to a fifth or a fourth of the population saying that they do not care who was president (after subtracting out those who say that they don't want to respond.)

And look at Ukraine: today, the most rightest candidate (advised by U.S. Republican political strategists) could only pull in about 30% of the vote, rather than the 60 or 51 per cents earlier claimed by the pro-Russian party.
(The Orange revolution coalition is badly split over NATO; with a similar split occuring in the Belarus democratic opposition.)

Please show me your evidence that Lukashenka "won" more than 49.9% of the vote; thereby avoiding a second round.

Thanks again to all for music and cultural coverage.

jfl said...

1.) I think Mr. Reilly would not find much in Sierra -- our tastes are fairly similar on that territory; But I judge on his responses to other works (Golijov's Passion, for example). Masterpiece it ain't - not in my book.

2.) To say that 20-25% percent don't care about who is president only supports - not undermines - my point. Evidence is, of course, hard to come by... I merely relate to you what I read and hear and gather from other analysts and people on the ground.

Remember that *wishing* the result to have been different (or reality to be different) doesn't make it so. But for anyone who can't even accept that Bush jr. won two elections, it must be hard to fathom that a country to which you obviously have fond ties elected ("would have elected" - if we allow for the rigged election not to be dignified with that name) a dictator who is several shades worse than ours. Errmm.. our President, that is.

Garth Trinkl said...

Jens, I'm not talking about "wishing". I'm talking about verifiable evidence that Lukashenka actually received 50% or more of the vote. I maintain that it is Lukashenka who is "wishing" that he would prevail in a fair and free, internationally-monitered election.

I readily agree that millions more Americans voted for Gore than for Bush, Jr in 2000. However, under America's current system of "managed democracy", the vote of one Supreme Court Justice was allowed to determine the outcome. And I'll agree that this American electoral action in 2000 has encouraged Kuchma, Lukashenka, and Putin to toy with their own national concepts of "managed democracy".

jfl said...

"And I'll agree that this American electoral action in 2000 has encouraged Kuchma, Lukashenka, and Putin to toy with their own national concepts of "managed democracy"."

Uhhh.. God, I wasn't suggesting that solving a dispute between narrowly elected politicians by peaceful and lawful and uncontested (from the opponents, at least; if not the political fringe) inspired these dictators over there to anything at all. The political personality Lukashenka learned from was Yanukovich: Don't even give up a LITTLE power, don't even allow the media a LITTLE freedom, don't even allow the opposition a FOOTHOLD in the parliament. I am not arguing that Lukashenka is not a dictator -- just that he rigged the election from ~60 to 85-plus percent; which is a different kind of 'stealing' the election. We can't know how a free and fair election might have gone... because it was neither. But UNfree and UNfair and Russia-supported as it was, it would not have taken rigging to get comfortably above 50%. Not when almost that many people make their money through/off/or because of the government.

jfl