Thursday, February 07, 2013

Three Paris Concerts

We heard three orchestra concerts on three successive evenings in Paris.

The first concert was by Orchestre National d'Île de France, playing under its Music Director, Enrique Mazzola, at Salle Pleyel.

Orchestre National d'Île de France is a full-time orchestra that serves not only Paris but the entire Île de France, frequently playing in suburban and exurban locales. The orchestra is of fairly recent provenance, founded in 1974, and has had one Music Director of note, Yoel Levi, who surely found the job a challenge.

Orchestre National d'Île de France is not a good orchestra. It is by far the least of Paris’s four full-time concert orchestras. Ensemble is not tight, the orchestra’s sound quality is thin and wispy, and the orchestra lacks deep musical instincts. From the appearances of the musicians onstage, three-quarters of the orchestra’s membership is comprised of musicians at the very ends of their professional careers while one-quarter is comprised of musicians at the very beginnings of theirs.

The primary work on the first half of the program was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1; the sole work on the second half of the program was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 (“Polish”).

The Beethoven sounded as if it had not been rehearsed; the Tchaikovsky was a sloppy, loud, vulgar performance, the kind of thing one seldom hears in the U.S., even from provincial ensembles. I found Mazzola, a Spaniard who studied in Italy, laughable in the Tchaikovsky, so over-the-top was his interpretation.

The pianist in the Beethoven was Cédric Tiberghien, a French pianist highly regarded in France, but never able to establish a U.S. career.

Tiberghien was, I believe, having an off night. There were lots of slipped notes, and Tiberghien appeared unable to relax, most likely because he was working with a poor conductor. Mazzola did what he wanted in the Allegro, changing tempi constantly, which threw Tiberghien off. Mazzola conducted the Largo like a dirge, which made the lengthiest middle movement among all Beethoven concertos go on forever and ever. Even the jaunty Rondo was a mess—the conductor displayed a tendency to speed up at the ends of phrases, with the result that the players became in sync neither with themselves nor the soloist. (Mazzola’s Tchaikovsky also displayed the same tendency to speed up at the ends of phrases, a practice that single-handedly destroyed the Alla tedesca as well as the Scherzo and Finale.)

Two short works were placed at the beginning of the concert.

Panufnik’s “Katyn Epitaph”, from 1967, was first. Little more than an eight-minute crescendo, “Katyn Epitaph” received the one convincing performance of the night—and I suspect “Katyn Epitaph” ate up a significant portion of the available rehearsal time.

A world premiere was next: Svitlana Azarova’s “Mover Of The Earth, Stopper Of The Sun”, billed as an overture. I had never previously heard a note of Azarova’s music—in fact, I had never even heard of Azarova until we had booked our tickets for the concert.

“Mover Of The Earth, Stopper Of The Sun” was written in a very conservative idiom; it was the musical equivalent of an Alex Katz painting. The composition demonstrated a genuine mastery of orchestration—there was some real color to be heard—but the musical materials and the composer’s manipulation of those musical materials, on one hearing, did not strike me as fundamentally imaginative.

I have no idea whether the composition was a representative work of the composer.


The following evening we heard Orchestre National de France at Le Théâtre du Châtelet.

Le Théâtre du Châtelet is not the normal venue for Orchestre National de France concerts—Théâtre des Champs-Élysées is the orchestra’s permanent home—but Théâtre des Champs-Élysées had been booked for the evening, forcing Orchestre National de France to play elsewhere.

Despite its poor acoustics, Le Théâtre du Châtelet is much-used for orchestra concerts—for Paris orchestras as well as visiting orchestras. (In 2003, I had heard Riccardo Muti lead the orchestra of La Scala at Le Théâtre du Châtelet.)

At the time we booked our tickets, Colin Davis had been announced as conductor for the January 24 Orchestre National de France concert. Nonetheless, we had not expected Davis to appear, knowing that Davis has been canceling most of his scheduled concerts for the last year, often at short notice.

As we had anticipated, a few days prior to the concert, it was announced that Davis would not be appearing, and that Neeme Järvi would be on the podium instead. The scheduled program—Mozart and Sibelius—was unchanged.

I have never been a Järvi admirer. Järvi is famed for his glibness, skating over the surface of an enormous repertory. Järvi’s secret, I believe, is that he chooses faster-than-necessary tempi in order to keep things moving at all costs—a practice that, for him, has proven successful (within obvious limits).

The concert began with a performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 (“Haffner”). Järvi is not a Mozart conductor, and I had expected nothing from him in the “Haffner”.

Järvi surprised me greatly, offering the finest performance of the evening. Järvi’s Mozart was abstract Mozart, like Beecham’s—and, in the right hands, abstract Mozart can work beautifully. I was in rapture the entire performance, marveling at its freshness and ebullience of spirit, the most distinguishing characteristics of this “Haffner” interpretation. Järvi’s may have been the finest “Haffner” I have ever heard.

Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 followed, with Arabella Steinbacher—wearing a ridiculous dress in a shade of purple I hope never again to encounter—as soloist.

I had heard Steinbacher once before, exactly two years ago, playing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 with the Boston Symphony (under Dohnanyi).

Steinbacher had been unimpressive in Mozart in 2011, and Steinbacher remained unimpressive in Mozart in 2013. I do not know where Steinbacher’s strengths lie—but they clearly do not lie in the music of Mozart. Steinbacher comes across as bland and uninteresting in the music of Mozart, aimlessly pecking away at the notes.

Steinbacher produces a beautiful but unvarying sound; her music-making lacks tension and personality and rhythmic life. Like Julia Fisher, with whom she shares a teacher, Steinbacher seems to be going for an all-purpose “radiance” in her performances. Radiance is a one-note device (and a device unable to sustain any performance for long), and I believe Steinbacher needs to add a touch of Anne-Sophie Mutter-like steel to her arsenal.

In the Mozart concerto, Järvi tried to stay out of the way—when he probably should have inserted himself into the proceedings and seized control. It appeared to me that Järvi deliberately tried to keep the orchestral contribution low-key in order not to upstage Steinbacher. Giving the spotlight to the soloist is not always the best course of action for a conductor—and, at this point in his career, Järvi no longer need worry that a soloist might attempt to undercut him behind the scenes, and cause him loss of engagements, if he took command of a performance.

The second half of the program was devoted to Sibelius’s Symphony No. 3.

Davis does a masterful Sibelius Third—Davis is far and away the best living exponent of this symphony—and it would have been a rare privilege to hear Davis lead a work he conquered more than forty years ago.

Järvi is not a Sibelius conductor at Davis’s level. Järvi’s propensity to skate over the surface comes to the fore in music of Sibelius—Järvi’s Sibelius, above all, sounds “colorful”—and the Paris performance of the Sibelius Third was lightweight, without mystery or soul or grandeur. It did not cohere as a complex, fascinating and profound work, which the Sibelius Third very definitely proves to be under Davis’s guidance.

What we heard from Järvi was conducting more appropriate for Sibelius’s incidental music from the 1890s (music light and pleasant, but nothing much beyond that): tunes were brought to the fore, beauties of orchestration were highlighted, the music was paced so as to bounce along agreeably. Amid this outpouring of bucolic delights, symphonic argument became lost; the music was drained of content and drama. Järvi’s performance was, in essence, facile—always the standard knock against Järvi.

At the conclusion of the performance, I observed widespread smiles among members of the audience. The Sibelius Third is not supposed to cause an outbreak of smiles.

I last heard Orchestre National de France in 2004 (under Daniel Harding, in music of Berg and Mahler). That long-ago night had not been a happy one. The orchestra’s basic intonation had been shockingly poor, the level of ensemble dismaying. I honestly wondered, throughout the performance, whether the musicians were deliberately insulting Harding, a conductor widely disliked (the musicians studiously avoided looking at Harding all night, and Harding appeared to grow more despondent by the minute).

The orchestra clearly has improved since that unfortunate concert nine years ago. Parisians like to claim that Daniele Gatti, Music Director since 2008, has performed miracles with the orchestra—but I believe such assertions may be carrying things too far. Orchestre National de France in its current state remains nothing more than a typical French ensemble.

The French idea of an orchestra remains different from—and alien to—the Central European or American idea of an orchestra: a body of musicians that plays as one. French orchestras, for better or worse, have always been 100 musicians, playing as 100 musicians. The result: French orchestras are of comparable quality to French armies; both institutions are preternaturally incapable of performing their functions at a high level.

At the conclusion of the scheduled program, the orchestra and Järvi performed an encore: Sibelius’s “Andante Festivo”.

That there was an encore at a standard subscription concert surprised us. After the concert, I asked an elderly man sitting near us whether the orchestra typically played encores.

His answer: “Never”.


The following evening, we were back at Salle Pleyel, hearing the Orchestre de Paris under Paavo Järvi, the orchestra’s current Music Director.

The Orchestre de Paris is once again Paris’s finest orchestra, the traditional place it has occupied in the pecking order.

In 2003 and 2004, that honor had gone to the orchestra of the Paris Opera, a tribute to the work of James Conlon, Principal Conductor of the Paris Opera from 1995 to 2004. In 2003, I heard the finest Strauss “Salome” I ever expect to hear from Conlon and the orchestra of the Paris Opera—the orchestra had been magnificent—and I had experienced that “Salome” only one night after hearing an unimpressive and nondescript Orchestre de Paris in a subscription concert at Théâtre Mogador, at the time the orchestra’s temporary home while Salle Pleyel underwent renovation.

The Orchestre de Paris has an excellent array of winds. The wind playing is the shining glory of the orchestra, and is much finer than anything we are accustomed to hear in the Twin Cities, where the winds of the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra are not top-of-the-line.

The brass section of the Orchestre de Paris is competent—the Orchestre de Paris is probably the only Paris orchestra of which such may be said at present—but the level of sheer virtuosity does not approach that of brass sections of American orchestras.

The orchestra’s strings are the weak link. The strings of the Orchestre de Paris produce a featureless, un-beautiful sound. If a listener seeks richness, depth and coloration from a string section, the listener will find the Orchestre de Paris strings disappointing. If a listener seeks transparency, translucency and delicacy from a string section, the listener will find the Orchestre de Paris strings disappointing.

Music of Schumann, Lutoslawski and Beethoven was on the program. (When I had heard the Orchestre de Paris in 2003, music of Lutoslawski—the Concerto For Orchestra—had been on the program that night, too.)

Schumann’s “Genoveva” Overture started things off. Järvi gave a “by-the-notes” reading—Schumann is definitely not a Järvi strength—and the performance failed to ignite, lacking emotional weight and cumulative power.

Lutoslawski’s Piano Concerto followed the Schumann. Krystian Zimerman, who premiered the Lutoslawski in 1988 and for whom the work was written, was soloist.

Until we arrived in the concert hall, we had been unaware that the Lutoslawski was being performed in order to mark the 100th anniversary, to the day, of Lutoslawski’s birth: January 25, 1913.

The performance—from pianist, conductor, musicians—was excellent. It was the best thing we heard in Paris.

I have come to the conclusion that the Lutoslawski Piano Concerto must be the finest post-war piano concerto. No matter how many times one hears the work, one always hears countless new and fascinating things. In less than a quarter-century of existence, the Lutoslawski Piano Concerto has already been recorded at least six times, four times to stunning effect. Of modern works for orchestra, only Lutoslawski’s Symphony No. 3 can claim a comparable number of commercial recordings.

I agree with the prediction Shostakovich made near the end of his life: Shostakovich’s own music would not survive the test of time, but Lutoslawski’s music would. (In making his pronouncement, Shostakovich did not have the benefit of knowing the late flow of masterpieces yet to come from Lutoslawski’s pen.) Lutoslawski surely is the great post-Stravinsky composer, with the necessary nod to Carter and Dutilleux.

Zimerman, who no longer appears in the U.S., now looks old, even shopworn. His virtuosity was undiminished, although his countenance grows more dour each time I see him.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”) concluded the program.

The storm music was lively—in what otherwise was an abysmally tedious performance. The first, second and fifth movements were deadening beyond belief.

Järvi can be a profoundly boring conductor . . . and I was bored out of my mind by Järvi’s Beethoven.

The audience appeared to be bored, too. The applause after the Beethoven was less than half the applause at the conclusion of the Lutoslawski—and the audience present was a regular subscription audience, and not a specialist modern-music audience.

Järvi achieved something I did not think possible: he made me appreciate Osmo Vanska’s Beethoven.

Vanska’s Beethoven may be criticized relentlessly. Little more than an accumulation of details, Vanska’s Beethoven is fierce if not brutal, unsophisticated and one-dimensional, exaggerated and anti-intellectual, un-German and un-Classical, totally lacking in spirituality and heart—and wholly empty.

Yet, as a general rule, Vanska’s Beethoven is not boring.

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