Sunday, December 04, 2011

Towers Of Angst

Last evening, Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in music of Beethoven and Frank Martin.

Pianist Christian Zacharias was both guest conductor and guest soloist.

Josh and I last heard Zacharias in November of last year, when he had appeared with the Boston Symphony as conductor and pianist.

That 2010 occasion had not been a happy one. Zacharias, making his Boston Symphony debut as a conductor (Zacharias had debuted as a pianist with the Boston Symphony in 1979; that 1979 Boston appearance had marked his American debut), had been assigned two late Haydn symphonies and two Mozart piano concertos, far too heavy a remit for a conductor working with an orchestra for the first time. In hindsight, I am surprised that those Boston performances did not fall apart (which they came close to doing).

Zacharias was on much friendlier turf last evening, because he has worked successfully with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in the past. Last night, it was clear from the start of the program that Zacharias and the musicians worked well together.

Martin’s Etudes For String Orchestra began the concert (and was the attraction that got us into the concert hall). Composed in 1955 and 1956, the composition is just one of many masterpieces that flowed from Martin’s pen, starting when the composer was in his early fifties and ending with his death at the age of 84.

It took Martin a long time to acquire his individual voice, longer perhaps than any other major composer. Martin was fifty-one or fifty-two years old when his individual voice finally emerged during the early years of World War II. That he lived and worked in neutral Switzerland enabled Martin to write without letup during the war years. Once he found his voice, Martin’s output significantly accelerated; almost all Martin works performed today come from the last thirty years of the composer’s life.

The Etudes For String Orchestra are marvels of invention. It would be accurate to classify the composition as Neo-Classic in the Stravinksy mode, but such is a very limiting—and almost misleading—classification. Martin was one of the century’s great masters of counterpoint (he studied the music of Bach his entire life), and he was one of the century’s great masters of serial writing. Both disciplines are on ample display in the Etudes.

Martin was a mathematician and physicist by training as well as a devout Calvinist. His music is both innately logical and deeply spiritual, qualities entirely in keeping with his scientific background and deep religious faith.

The SPCO performance of the Etudes was technically brilliant, but it shortchanged much of the expression written into the score. I suspect the SPCO does not play enough Martin to come to grips with the full range of content in Martin’s music. The Etudes sounded impersonal in the Saint Paul performance, as if the musicians had accepted the work’s title at face value.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 followed the Martin.

The orchestra’s playing in the Beethoven was, once again, impersonal—but this may have been the fault of the conductor, who could hardly play the piano part while looking out for the orchestra at the same time.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 may be performed with a single conductor/pianist because it is very much an on-the-surface piece. Beethoven’s last three piano concertos, however, require both a conductor and a pianist—and a conductor and pianist with distinct personalities, personalities strong enough to realize fully the tension and battle of wills Beethoven consciously wrote into the concerto form in his mature efforts. To call upon a single musician to perform both roles will, inevitably, limit the scope of the performance—and, on occasion, even trivialize it.

The orchestra was a non-factor in last night’s performance. The notes were played, beautifully, but nothing happened. The orchestra provided a supporting, not a contrasting, presence.

It was, nonetheless, an interesting performance, but only because Zacharias the keyboard artist had very definite ideas about how to shape the piano part.

Zacharias dispensed with the niceties of Classicism. His tempi were all over the place, and his very pronounced and very personal use of rubato would not have been unwelcome in the music of Chopin. Zacharias played the piano part as if it represented Early Romanticism, where deep expression and heightened drama count for more than classic equipoise. Significantly, I thought that Zacharias was trying to find outright tragedy in a piece where there is none.

Zacharias certainly held my attention—but any musician that offers a highly unusual reading of a standard work will, by definition, hold the listener’s attention. Such cannot be the sole—or even the primary—standard by which a musician’s work is to be judged.

Simply put, Zacharias’s too-Romantic style of play shoved Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 thirty or forty years into the future. The result was that the work’s formal perfection disappeared, its chaste qualities swelling to towers of angst. Zacharias’s interpretation would have been better suited to the Schumann Piano Concerto.

After intermission, the orchestra played excerpts from Beethoven’s “The Creatures Of Prometheus”, one of the composer’s least interesting compositions. Played complete (overture and sixteen numbers), the score takes approximately 70 minutes to perform. Happily, the selections offered last night required only half that time—yet the work nonetheless seemed to go on forever.

It is easy to understand why “The Creatures Of Prometheus” is seldom encountered in concert halls. The music is not inspired; the composer seems stuck in his early contredanse mode of writing.

What is not easy to understand is why the SPCO placed “The Creatures Of Prometheus” last on the program. It was the weakest music of the night. It should have served as the concert’s opening work.

Zacharias will return to the SPCO in two weeks time, conducting music of Haydn, Weber and Stravinsky. Josh and I may try to attend one of those concerts.

In the meantime, Zacharias will make his long-overdue Carnegie Hall recital debut on December 13, a debut that should have occurred thirty years ago. When I read, a day or two ago, that Zacharias had never previously been invited to perform a solo recital in Carnegie’s main auditorium, I was dumbfounded. Zacharias has been an important pianist for more than three decades. He should have logged a dozen Carnegie recitals by now.


  1. My favorite Martin work is the "Petite Symphonie Concertante," a work dating from about 1944. I don't remember ever seeing this music programmed by an American orchestra, which is such a pity. One of my most bewitching LP albums way back was a Decca coupling of this work with the "Concerto Grosso Nr. 1" by Bloch, under the leadership of Ansermet. Sadly, it is no longer available.

    Why is the Martin not played in America? Perhaps conductors are afraid that the very mention of "12-tone" will turn off audiences. But Martin uses 12-tone only in the first movement; the row he employs is anything but "atonal."

    The coupling on that old record would make for a great second half of a concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. The first half could include Stravinsky's E-flat Concerto and open with Bach's first orchestral suite, for instance.

  2. I like virtually everything Martin wrote.

    It would not surprise me if Thierry Fischer has been programming music of Martin in Utah, although I have never bothered to check Fischer’s programming for Salt Lake City. The Utah Symphony has more or less dropped off the map, and I make absolutely no effort to keep up with things out there.

    Saint Paul does some interesting programming, I must say. The Twin Cities would be poorer without the presence of the SPCO.

    And I must admit that the Minnesota Orchestra has more stimulating programming than most American orchestras, although I like to grumble about the Minnesota Orchestra and its programming from time to time.