Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Waste Of Our Time

On Thursday night before last, my parents, Joshua’s sister, and Joshua and I heard the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall in Chicago, part of a music weekend in Chicago planned around a rare opportunity to hear Pierre Boulez.

A week or two before the concert, Boulez cancelled. The replacement conductor was Cristian Macelaru, Associate Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Debussy’s “Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun” opened the concert. It was a lovely performance, with ravishing winds, of a work the Chicago Symphony can play in its sleep. It made me want to hear the Chicago Symphony musicians in something more substantial by Debussy, such as the composer’s greatest orchestral work, “Images”.

Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 followed. Yefim Bronfman was soloist.

I do not admire the first two piano concertos of Bartók, both written in the 1920s, the decade after Bartók's early post-Strauss, post-Debussy works and the decade before Bartók found his own individual variant of Modernism, a variant that carried him to success during the final decade of his life and work.

There is not much for a pianist to do in the Bartók other than play the notes. The work affords little opportunity for individual expression by the soloist.

In any case, Bronfman is a technician; he has never displayed personality or individuality in anything he has played.

Bronfman recorded all three Bartók concertos for Sony in a disc released in 1995. Support was provided by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. That recording, sloppy beyond belief, is the worst integral recording of the concertos ever to see the light of day. It reflected no credit whatsoever upon soloist, conductor or orchestra, all of whom might as well have been sight-reading. If I am not mistaken, the disc won a Grammy Award—and not in the category of Best Comedy Performance.

The Chicago performance was a skilled run-through of the Bartók, nothing more. Anyone hearing the work for the first time would have asked himself, “Why is this work in the repertory?”

After intermission, the orchestra played Bartók’s Divertimento For Strings. It received the finest performance of the evening.

The Chicago strings have a steel-like quality that some persons find annoying, yet the steeliness of the orchestra’s string section worked to advantage in the Bartók Divertimento—the steeliness lended backbone to a piece always in danger of evaporating into thin air. The Divertimento lacks the gravitas and mystery of the composer’s other work for string orchestra, Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta.

It was in the final work of the program that I most missed Boulez. Stravinsky’s “The Song Of The Nightingale” did not come off at all. It was an isolated series of nice moments that we heard, with some nice work from the winds, instead of a coherent, satisfying performance.

“The Song Of The Nightingale” is not an easy work to bring off—has anyone ever improved upon Fritz Reiner’s 1956 recording with the Chicago Symphony?—and last week’s performance amounted to nothing.

There were numerous empty seats at last Thursday’s concert. It made me wonder whether the concert had not sold well or whether ticket purchasers, disappointed at not hearing Boulez, had stayed home.

If the latter was the cause of the poor attendance, those persons choosing to stay home had made a wise decision.


  1. Might I add that the greatest PERFORMANCE of Debussy's "Images" is Boulez's 1967 recording on Sony - not the DG - with the Cleveland.

  2. As a general rule, Boulez’s DGG remakes are inferior to his earlier Sony recordings.

    There are many fine recorded “Images”. Is Boulez 1967 finer than Haitink 1979? Or Van Beinum 1954? I shall have to check it out (I’m sure my Dad has it).

    If you want to hear a really BAD recording of the “Images”, get Salonen with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Sony. Salonen’s “Images” is hysterical: undisciplined, wrong-headed, totally over-the-top, even wild, like Leopold Stokowski conducting the “Polovtsian Dances” while insanely drunk.

    The recording has to be heard to be believed; the performance is so preposterous, it causes me to laugh out loud.