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Ionarts-at-Large: Berlioz and Strategically Lowered Expectations

The deal was this: Mozart’s d-minor Piano Concerto and Bruckner Seventh Symphony. Piotr Anderszewski for the Mozart, David Zinman principally for the Bruckner, and the Munich Philharmonic to do the orchestral legwork… something to truly look forward to. But David Zinman had to cancel and somehow a competent replacement that could do both, Mozart and Bruckner, was nowhere to be found. Someone like Herbert Blomstedt, for example, might not have had time (he seems more readily available for the other orchestra in town, the BRSO); someone like Stanisław Skrowaczewski probably isn’t even in the management’s rolodex. But the name Nikolaj Znaider is in there, and a violin is so easily replaced with a baton. So eventually he was asked to conduct the concert, consented and—Bruckner be damned—brought Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique with him; one of the works he apparently already knows by heart, as a conductor.

available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, PCs. 17 & 20 (K.466),
P.Anderszewski / Scottish ChO
Virgin Classics
available at Amazon
H.Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique,
C.Munch / Boston SO
RCA Living Stereo SACD
Just a couple of weeks ago I had a few words with Andrew Manze—who would know—on the touchy subject of famous soloists entering the conducting business to dubious—and occasionally tremendous—credit. We mentioned musicians like Barenboim, and agreed that he’d have had a career in conducting at the highest level even without ever touching a piano. Vladimir Ashkenazy’s name came up as someone—again agreement—who might not have gotten into conducting if it hadn’t been for his status as a soloist, but who has since more than proved himself as a very fine conductor. Naturally Manze was tactful enough not to mention any names on the other end of the spectrum, but then they’re not that difficult to think of. The interesting point Manze made, the one that had me stop in my tracks for a while, was this: “Wouldn’t you want your conductors to be musicians before they take on conducting? Would you really want some kid straight out of conducting school standing in front of an orchestra?”

An excellent point, but of course the problem with conducting soloists is not that they are too much of a musician, it’s that they’re not enough conductor. There are two different skill sets involved, both feeding (ideally, that is) off musicality. Most successful conductor-conductors have played an instrument at some level (Minkowski was an oboist, Thielemann a violist etc.), there are exceptions, of course (Rattle, who did a bit of percussion, Muti, who went straight into conducting/composing), and then there are those you wish had indeed spent a little longer with their trumpet before entering full-time conducting. There is nothing that says that a famous soloist hasn’t what it takes to make a great conductor… but there is the danger that he is picked for high-profile conducting gigs because of the name made with the instrument, not the baton. Perhaps Nikolai Znaider has what it takes to become a great conductor; perhaps even approaching his level of violinism in that field. But at this stage he should be conducting the Würzburg Philharmonic or the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, not the orchestras with which he has performed as a soloist at (or near) the top of his game. And surely not the Munich Philharmonic, an orchestra that all too willingly meets modest conductors at their level.

This premonition of mediocrity isn’t just a hunch. Nikolaj Znaider has been conducting the Munich Philharmonic before; most recently in a program of Mozart and Tchaikovsky Symphonies. The Mozart was so atrocious that, in ill health anyway, I was compelled to leave at intermission. A local colleague who stayed (and, not knowing I had been there, referred to said Mozart symphony as “making you want to run away”) assured me that the Tchaikovsky was considerably better than the Mozart… but then, it would have been almost impossible not to be. So what did that mean for the Mozart Concerto KV466 tonight? Ever the seasoned pessimist, I decided to anticipate disaster; which is the concert-going analogue to the George W. Bush approach to successful speeching: Lower expectations as much as possible, then hit it out of the park just by not completely gaffing.

That was a good idea, as it turned out, and the reward was a perfectly entertaining Mozart Concerto—certainly more enjoyable than my most recent Mozart Piano Concerto experience with the Grimaud-Bergen combo. Ignoring the unintentionally interesting low brass sticking out of the ensemble in the opening movement, the deftly manhandled first movement turned out rather entertaining and its rotund attempts at explosiveness were not altogether futile. Whether the slightly heavy, belabored approach was Piotr Anderszewski’s ideal is a different matter; but he played along in his own way, without undue fussiness and a hefty grip. To all this, Znaider waved his arms about in perfect sync and harmony, doing no harm where much harm could have been done.

The Mozart-apprehension was overcome, but Berlioz-trepidation still reigned (in all fairness: partly due to Berlioz, not just Znaider) and again I had my deliberately lowered expectations exceeded. To quantify—if not actually clarify—this, let’s introduce my internal concert-rating scale from 0 to 10 (you might say that it “goes to eleven”). It is distributed in standard normal distribution, a.k.a. along a bell curve. At the mean (center) is “5 – Snooze”, above and below are “4 – Snore” and “6 – Did I get all the groceries?” That’s not mean, just realistic and doesn’t even discount that fact that I am rather spoiled with good concerts, seeing how I don’t usually attend the undoubtedly laudable efforts of the likes of Würzburg Philharmonic or Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Symphonie fantastique started out in solid Five-territory; not bad per se, but not exactly what makes you go out and attend a concert for. The first two movements only offered a generally pleasant ooompfish sound, somewhere between thick and homogenous, but in a good way. “Scène aux Champs” was a true summer pleasantry, with overtones of a meaningless Pastorale… but then the gimmicks came out, and with it the spice of the evening. The dialogue of cor anglais and oboe (peasants playing their pipes to call their cows home…) doesn’t just have the oboe off-stage, as prescribed, but coming (very effectively) from behind the audience, which in the Philharmonic Hall of the Gasteig is about 30 feet above the orchestra level. The flute and oboe recalling the musical idée fixe (standing in for the actress that Berlioz chased and would eventually marry) in that movement did the same… and the four kettle drum rolls suggesting the ensuing thunderstorm were placed left and right outside the hall.

Did anyone ever say that exaggeration was not a legitimate tool of musical interpretation, or that that wasn’t in fact the key to successful Berlioz? The preceding bits had already been well above “5 - Snooze”, but with the lovably unsubtle, robust “Marche au Supplice” and the amusingly (this time intentionally) off-kilter woodwind chatter of the now distorted idée fixe from the final movement (“Songe d’une Nuit de Sabbat”), there was a definite hint of “7 – captivated!” in the air. Which, with however many quibbles one gets there, spells an above average night at the orchestra.