Sunday, November 25, 2012

Throwaway Virtuosity

Two weeks ago last night, we heard the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall in Chicago. The conductor was Charles Dutoit; on the program was music of Britten, Walton and Beethoven.

Britten’s Variations And Fugue On A Theme Of Purcell (“The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra”) opened the concert. The performance was excellent, splendid in every way. I never expect to hear a finer performance of the work.

It was a rare thing, hearing an orchestra play with such perfection of balance—perfection of balance is the first quality that immediately strikes listeners accustomed to hearing second-tier ensembles—and the Chicago Symphony’s balance was phenomenal. No European orchestra is capable of playing with such utter perfection of balance, except perhaps the Vienna Philharmonic under the right conductor in the right repertory; in the U.S., only the Cleveland Orchestra displays such acute and brilliant attention to matters of balance.

The Walton Violin Concerto followed. Soloist was Gil Shaham.

Shaham, an admirable artist, gave a very reticent account of the Walton. I do not think Shaham has internalized the Walton Violin Concerto; the performance had no unique character, no fervor, no flavor. It would not surprise me if Shaham had added the Walton to his repertory only in recent years—and it would not surprise me if Shaham were to admit under cross-examination that he does not love this particular concerto (which he has no obligation to do).

The Walton Violin Concerto is a very great work, but one not easy to master. Very few violinists have proven totally compelling in the work—starting, oddly, with Ida Haendel, whose 1978 recording captures a reading of purest inspiration—and many front-rank violinists have never bothered to add the work to their repertories.

Anne-Sophie Mutter is working on the Walton for the first time right now—Mutter began working on the concerto seriously in February, and she says that she loves it—and it will be interesting to hear what Mutter makes of the piece (although Mutter has yet to schedule it). It was Haendel, whom Mutter worships, who convinced Mutter to look at the Walton.

Unlike most great violin concertos, the first movement of the Walton Violin Concerto is not a major sonata-form movement carrying the weight of the work. The first movement of the Walton is a scene-setter, contrasting two lyrical themes. Marked sognando (“dreamy”), the first movement is attractive and atmospheric, but it is the least interesting and least satisfying and least dramatic movement of the concerto.

Weight is introduced in the magnificent second-movement Scherzo, one of Walton’s finest creations. A blend of Neapolitan dance and canzonetta, the Scherzo is fiendishly difficult, exceedingly dramatic and emotionally gripping from beginning to end.

Finer still is the Rondo that concludes the concerto. The Rondo contrasts march-like episodes with moments of deepest lyricism and regret—and the Rondo finds Walton at his most inspired. The composer proceeds through a bewildering array of emotions, forever increasing tension and excitement, until a final release of energy dazzles and overwhelms the listener.

In a great performance of the Walton, the listener’s blood begins to boil early in the second movement—and grows hotter by the minute until the concerto reaches its thrilling and passionate conclusion.

The Chicago performance was unable to reach such heights. What we heard was something very neutral.

No one onstage gave evidence of profound love for the work. No one onstage gave evidence even of wholehearted belief.

It was a professional, objective and guarded performance we heard, not a memorable or distinguished one. I doubt the Walton Violin Concerto is Dutoit’s piece or the Chicago Symphony’s piece, any more than it is Shaham’s piece.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 concluded the program.

I have never thought of Dutoit as a Beethoven conductor, but the performance of the Beethoven could hardly have been bettered—unless Colin Davis, the living master of Beethoven’s Seventh, had been on the podium. Dutoit’s performance was sprightly and fleet, in the current fashion, but I never felt that genuine gravitas or depth was lacking. Dutoit’s was a performance on an entirely different plane than the performance of the Beethoven Seventh we had experienced exactly five weeks earlier, when we had suffered through Thomas Dausgaard’s toy-soldier account of the same symphony with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Dutoit has the gift of keeping things fresh, no matter how often he has performed a work. How Dutoit manages this is beyond me—but I have had occasion in the past to remark upon Dutoit’s possession of this unusual gift, a gift that Dutoit alone of today’s leading conductors exhibits in abundance.

One would think that the musicians of the Chicago Symphony, too, would be sick unto death of playing the Beethoven Seventh—yet the performance demonstrated not merely professionalism but great dedication and commitment as well. I was in awe, the entire time, how spectacular was the playing, how vital and energetic was the music-making, with ardency and ebullience to spare.

To my ears, the Chicago Symphony has never sounded better. Intonation, balancing, voicing, phrasing, layering and texturing and quality of sound, rhythmic vitality and crispness: everything was to die for.

The Chicago strings displayed the perfect blend of heft and transparency, a characteristic only a handful of orchestras in the world can claim. Absent were the glassiness and wiriness that mark some American string sections; absent also were the impenetrable thickness and opaqueness that mark others.

Given how high were the orchestra’s exacting technical standards, to mention that the level of bar-by-bar execution approached perfection—attacks, releases, uniformity of sound throughout the full dynamic range: all displayed throwaway virtuosity—becomes mere afterthought.

The Chicago Symphony of today sounds better and plays better than it did during the Daniel Barenboim years (not that the Barenboim era was a high point in the orchestra’s history—I always thought the Chicago musicians under Barenboim sounded as if they were operating under constraints). My father says that the orchestra sounds at least as fine as it did under Georg Solti—and perhaps better.

This is a great, great orchestra. Chicago provides a template of how an orchestra is supposed to sound. I wonder whether Chicago is now better even than Cleveland.

We are due to hear Chicago again in March. We are already looking forward to it (and wondering whether Pierre Boulez will cancel; it may be Josh’s last chance to hear Boulez).

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