Sunday, June 12, 2011

Gloom Does Not Equal Profundity

Last evening, Joshua and I took my parents to Saint Paul to hear the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in its final subscription program of the season.

Josh and I had not heard the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in concert since April 2008.

Hard as it is for me to believe, Josh and I had attended only two SPCO concerts when we lived in the Twin Cities from June 2006 until August 2008. Consequently, last night was only the third time Josh had heard the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in person.

Last night’s program was attractive, which is why we had obtained tickets.

The concert began with a performance of Schubert’s Offertory In B Flat Major, D. 963, a solemn composition for tenor, chorus and orchestra written in the month before Schubert’s death.

The Offertory, like so much of Schubert’s choral output, is very seldom performed in the United States. Indeed, I had never previously seen the work programmed.

Of less than ten minutes’ duration, the Offertory seemed a slight work in the Saint Paul performance; both the music and the performance struck me as neutral and uncommitted. The composition reminded me of the Deutsche Messe, one of Schubert’s least interesting works written for worship service. The Deutsche Messe, Schubert’s simplest and least typical mass setting, does not find the composer at his most inspired—and the Saint Paul performance of the Offertory offered no hints of inspiration, either.

The work of the orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Chorale was perfectly fine, but also perfectly bland. The tenor soloist was a local singer.

The evening’s conductor, Thomas Zehetmair, appeared as both soloist and conductor in the second work on the program, Hartmann’s Concerto Funebre.

Zehetmair has maintained Hartmann’s Concerto Funebre in his repertory for more than twenty years; he surely knows the piece as well as anyone alive, as he has played the piece countless times all over the world since the late 1980s.

I do not think that Hartmann was a good composer. Hartmann had assimilated the music of Bartok, Schoenberg, Berg and the French modernists—and had studied with Webern, with whom he had argued—yet Hartmann produced music that, while definitely of a modernist bent, lacked character, personality, freshness and appeal.

Everything Hartmann wrote reminds me of Weill’s Symphony No. 1. In Weill’s first symphony, the young composer had borrowed techniques from virtually every modernist composer then working in Central Europe. Weill’s Symphony No.1 was in essence a “study” symphony, the work of a student on the brink of maturation. The symphony was designed to demonstrate the young composer’s grasp of complicated forms and familiarity with “advanced” writing idioms—but it was not a symphony worth hearing “on the merits”. Written before the composer had acquired his individual voice, Weill’s Symphony No. 1 is a curiosity, a prelude to the much more successful Symphony No. 2.

In Hartmann’s lengthy composing career, Hartmann never proceeded beyond the stage Weill had inhabited while writing his youthful first symphony. There is an “everything but the kitchen sink” quality to Hartmann’s music; he borrowed techniques from everyone—but in the process he failed to find himself.

Hartmann, unlike Weill, never acquired an individual voice. The lack of an individual voice is the ultimate fatality for a composer—and provides the reason Hartmann’s music has never caught on, and probably never will catch on.

The Concerto Funebre, beautifully constructed on the printed page, is Hartmann’s most-frequently-performed composition. It is a serious, thoughtful, learned, even noble work—and yet the piece is a complete dud.

Although scored only for strings, the scoring is thick if not impenetrable (which is also true of Hartmann’s symphonies—Hartmann had studied the orchestration of Roussel rather than Ravel). The writing for solo violin is not grateful and does not “sound”—the violin does not soar above the orchestra as it must—and it is easy to understand why so few prominent violinists have placed the work into their active repertories.

Of greatest importance, the quality of ideas in Concerto Funebre is not high. Hartmann’s themes are mundane, his development of the themes even more mundane.

Concerto Funebre provides audiences with twenty minutes of earnest, well-meaning—and deadly—music. Its current performances, quite frequent, are more a tribute to the politics of the composer—he was in “internal exile” during the period of National Socialism—than to the quality of the composer's music.

Hartmann’s music may never have found its ideal interpreter.

Most conductors ignored Hartmann’s music during the composer’s lifetime.

Only a few conductors have learned and performed the symphonies since the composer’s death.

To date, the efforts of a handful of conductors on behalf of Hartmann have not revealed a body of work in need of discovery.

Rafael Kubelik certainly was unable to make anything of Hartmann’s symphonies—assuming Kubelik’s live recordings accurately represent his Hartmann interpretations, Kubelik brought no insight whatsoever to Hartmann. Ingo Metzmacher’s attempts to bring the Hartmann symphonies to life via modern studio recordings were not successful, either. Leon Botstein’s recorded interpretations of Hartmann’s symphonies were clumsy embarrassments.

If no conductor has been able to unlock Hartmann’s voice in the forty-eight years since the composer’s death, there probably is no voice to unlock.

One problem with Hartmann scores is that most were revised in the last decade of Hartmann’s life—with the result that the scores all sound startlingly alike. Hartmann compositions from the early 1930s sound exactly like Hartmann compositions from the early 1950s. The composer may have made an error in revising most of his scores late in life.

Another problem with Hartmann’s music is that Hartmann lacked a wide range of expression. Hartmann’s music expresses gloom, and little else—and, to my ears, the gloom is more earnest than deeply-felt. Gloom does not necessarily equal profundity, and I hear no profundity in Hartmann’s gloom.

Yet another problem with Hartmann’s music is the composer’s over-reliance upon the device of fugue. Whenever Hartmann needed to generate tension, or extend a movement, or bring things to a conclusion, he invariably inserted his personal version of a fugue into the proceedings. Unlike the fugues of Bach, the fugues of Hartmann are mechanical, and lack expression; they are mere academic tools—and they sound like academic tools.

Zehetmair’s performance of the Concerto Funebre last night sounded exactly like his 1990 Teldec recording of the work: a skillful, considered rendering of music—in various shades of gray—that fundamentally does not engage the ear or the mind.

Hartmann wrote his Concerto Funebre in 1939; the work was his personal reaction to Germany’s invasion and annexation of Czechoslovakia. Hartmann revised the work in 1959, when he gave the work its current title.

During the war, Hartmann had the luxury of remaining unemployed, a very unusual circumstance for a healthy male in wartime Germany. Hartmann lived in isolation and comfort outside Munich—his wife’s father was a wealthy manufacturer of ball bearings, and profited enormously from the war—and Hartmann enjoyed privileges unavailable to all but a handful of Germans.

Did earlier generations of German musicians hold such privilege against Hartmann? And boycott his music as a result?

I suspect not. Conductors that remained in Germany during the period of National Socialism generally avoided Hartmann’s music after the war, and conductors that emigrated from Germany on account of National Socialism also generally avoided Hartmann’s music after the war. Such would suggest that most conductors simply did not like the music Hartmann wrote.

I would like to know Twin Cities resident Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s unvarnished thoughts about the music of Hartmann. Skrowaczewski recently completed a series of concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic in which either Skrowaczewski or the administration of the Berlin Philharmonic had programmed Hartmann’s final composition, Gesangsszene, a work for baritone and orchestra. Did Skrowaczewski himself initiate programming of the Hartmann composition, or was the conductor merely doing the Berlin Philharmonic a favor? Or was the programming of Gesangsszene all about baritone Matthias Goerne, and only about Matthias Goerne?

After intermission, the orchestra and chorus offered the work that had attracted us to the concert hall: Haydn’s Mass No. 14 (“Harmoniemesse”), the composer’s final mass setting. The mass derives its name from its prominent writing for winds.

Last night’s Haydn performance mirrored the Schubert performance: orchestral execution and choral execution were at a high level, yet the music-making was incomparably bland. The soloists, all local singers, made no impression. It was a disappointing account of a great score.

Based upon last night’s concert, I am diffident about Zehetmair’s skill as a conductor.

It was obvious that Zehetmair had not inspired the Saint Paul musicians, who gave Zehetmair workmanlike performances. Zehetmair revealed no ideas and demonstrated no personality in the Schubert or Haydn. From a pure performance perspective, Zehetmair was at his best in the Hartmann—the Minnesota musicians actually seemed modestly engaged by the piece—yet Zehetmair revealed nothing that would make me want to hear him often on the podium.


On Friday night, my older brother and my sister-in-law went downtown to hear the Minnesota Orchestra play Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” (in the 1945 suite for full orchestra derived from the 1944 complete ballet score for chamber forces) and Orff’s “Carmina Burana”. They enjoyed the concert very much.

My nephew and niece were in our care while their parents were at the concert. Their mother brought them over in the middle of Friday afternoon, and they stayed with us overnight.

My middle brother joined us for the evening (and he, too, stayed overnight).

We had a great time, playing with the kids and their toys on the kitchen floor until dinnertime.

Josh and I prepared dinner so that my mother could mind my niece. We made a garden salad with numerous fresh vegetables. We made oven-fried chicken, the only fried chicken I can do successfully. We made a potato salad that included radishes, scallions and celery. We made baked beans. We made biscuits, some of which we ate with butter and some of which we ate with honey. For dessert, we made cherry crisp.

After dinner, we played table games until it was time for my nephew and niece to turn in.

On Saturday morning, we made buttermilk pancakes for breakfast. The kids like buttermilk pancakes served with brown sausages.

Not long after breakfast, their parents came to retrieve them and take them home—my brother’s family had things to do at home on Saturday—and the rest of us spent the day working on our Britain itinerary, which is nearing completion.

Today, after church, everyone came to my parents’ house.

We had grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches for lunch.

This afternoon, while my niece and nephew took their naps, my parents went to the care facility to sit with my grandmother.

Tonight we had roast chicken with stuffing, mashed potatoes, homemade butter noodles, fresh green beans, corn-on-the-cob, fried red tomatoes and my mother’s version of Waldorf Salad. For dessert, we had angel food cake.

This week, my nephew will attend Bible School on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

On Friday, the movers are scheduled to deliver to my older brother’s house Josh’s and my furniture from Boston.

My project for the week, while Josh is immersed in his bar review materials: my mother’s kitchen, which I am going to clean from top to bottom. I am going to take apart all appliances and all fixtures and clean everything mercilessly; clean and oil the cabinets and all other wood items in the kitchen, including furniture and woodwork and wooden window blinds; and strip and wax the floor.

I may create such disruption that we shall not be able to eat all week.

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