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Ionarts at Large: Ravel & Schnittke in Munich

available at Amazon
Schnittke/Webern-Bach/Bach, Faust Cantata/Ricerata/Chorales, Boreyko, Hamburg SO
Berlin Classics
available at Amazon
Ravel, Piano Concertos, Zimerman, Boulez, Cleveland Orchestra / LSO
available at Amazon
Bach-Schoenberg, Piano Quartet No.1, Orchestrated, Eschenbach, Houston Symphony
RCA, oop


Rarely have I encountered a concert program seemingly so tailored to my (very mildly eclectic) tastes as that of the Munich Philharmonic earlier this month. Between June 5th and 7th, Andrey Boreyko conducted Schnittke’s wild and whacky Faust Cantata—the closest (and maybe close enough) we’ll likely come to the composer’s opera “Historie von D. Johann Fausten”—and the Brahms G minor Piano Quartet.

The Faust Cantata, which would become the third act of the opera, shows Schnittke at his most effective. Twenty years of composing for film had given him a dead-on sensitivity for effect and he never lacked the confidence to use it brazenly. From the first notes he gets the mood just right; within two bars you feel transplanted into a black and white picture of F.W. Murnau. One of Schnittke’s devilishly good ideas was to give Mephisto to a countertenor (and a mezzo, when he is in disguise). Creepy delightful, with organ, orator (tenor Steve Davislim) accompanied on harpsichord, and of course the highlight of the show: the transvestitesque tango where Mephisto (disguised) narrates the gruesome death of Faust in gory detail. From the Matthew Passion to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Schnittke covers all your grand theatrical desires in this work. Undoubtedly one of the best treatments of Faust in music.

The low growling, seedy prowling Malgorzata Walewska was the sordid hit amid a very fine completed by Artur Stefanowicz as Mephisto and bass Arutjun Kotchinian as Faust.

Schoenberg’s name was squeezed into the last line and smallest font of the program book, lest the threat of Schnittke & Schoenberg keep the Philharmonic Hall an audience-free zone. Billing-strategy shrewdness, indeed. Heard live, the orchestration of the quartet really is Brahms’ Fifth Symphony—if perhaps a little heavy on the side of how we imagine a romantic Brahms and less how Brahms actually sounded. Questions like “is it Brahms” or “can one do that” (really all variants of “are we allowed to enjoy it?”) become utterly meaningless in face of how well it works. It’s terrific source material splendidly expanded to the orchestral level by another master, and it was well executed by the Munich Philharmonic. The ex-quartet sounded gorgeous in the hands of 60 strings, timpani, and nearly a dozen brass players . Why quibble with excellence only because our purity-meters begin to itch?


The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra offered a nearly as colorful but less eclectic mix the following week. Lothar Zagrosek led every wind, brass, and percussion player in Messiaen’s “Et expecto”, heard just half a year ago with the Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. In- and exhalations of heaving woodwinds begin this literally “catholic” requiem that mixes Indian rhythms, Brazilian bird calls, and Christian symbolism. Assuming a minimum of an organizational principle capably executed on the part of the conductor, any performance of this work will depend on the quality and good will of the performers. The former is unquestionably in place with this orchestra, and the latter was present, too. The enthusiasm went so far that during the enormous, undoubtedly unlawful, tam tam climax, at least one hearing aid in the audience got blown up and continued to whistle and chirp as it tortuously expired.

Not quite as much excitement in Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, but it was impressive enough that the work didn’t completely fall by memory’s wayside after Fazil Say first delivered a typically rambunctious, perfumed, and liberally jazzified performance of the Ravel Piano Concerto. There are other artists whose studied antics annoy more than they excite, but Say somehow makes it look authentic. He feels like a breath of fresh air in classical music concerts that have generally grown too darn serious to still engage in these Lisztian or Offenbachian, orgiastic, playing-for-the-sake-of-fun dazzling showboat acts. His Summertime-paraphrase brought the house down, as it does every time he plays it.

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