Saturday, December 08, 2012

Tchaikovsky Symphony 3 dazzles at Kennedy Center "Polish" Program; also, Lutoslawski, Chopin

I remember a 1995 film “Heat” and a famous confrontation between the mob characters played by Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Somewhere around that scene, the music score played some of the violin concerto of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski.

This week’s concert at the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC at the Kennedy Cemter features  a “Polish” Program as its theme. I’ll get back to that.  The opening of the concert, conduced by Austrian Hans Graf, as a short suite for strings, in four movements, called “Musique funebre” ("Funeral Music") by Lutoslawski.  It’s pretty far from the Strauss Metamorphosen, and closer to Bartok (the “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta”).  The style could be characterized as a hybrid (bad word since Sandy) of Bartok and Schoenberg.  The music has the arch structures common in Bartok.  The sense of atonality comes not so much must from tone rows but also from the use of tritones (augmented fourth intervals, like C to F#), which maintain a sense of ambiguity of tonality while allowing more repetition of the same note.  The particular interval is mathematically one-half an octave (that is, a frequency ratio of “square root of 2” over 1), which makes it effect symmetrical.  The notes mention the political problems that Lutoslawski faced in Communist Poland with some of his music being seen as too "cosmopolitan" and disrespectful to the proletariat.  

That opening piece was followed by the somewhat stodgy Piano Concerto #1 in E Minor, Op. 11, by Frederic Chopin.  I actually had an expensive record of this when I was a junior in High School, after I had gotten to know the more “thrilling” romantic concerti of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, and Liszt.  The soloist was Beijing born Yuja Wang.  Both Chopin concerti are criticized for being too piano-centric, but I could challenge that idea.  The first movement is curious in the way it offers some long rather colorless orchestral tutti, at the beginning of the development and as the coda as well as the opening  ritornello.  The program explains that Chopin stayed focused on the tonal center of E, not reaching the relative major of G for the second theme until the recapitulation.  What’s more notable to my ear is that the piano part in the first movement doesn’t seem to end on the tonic, but leaves the orchestra to return to E minor by itself.  The second movement is a nocturne and more tonally adventurous (even if it starts in the same E), but not up to the writing of  Chopin’s most original  nocturnes (like the G Minor).  In fact, I’ve read nice things about the little known posthumous nocturnes, and would like to hear them.  The finale has always sounded lively but rather fluffy.  The use of scales and grand arpeggios near the end gets interesting, though, and sometimes has been a source of inspiration for contemporary piano music. 

I think that the second concerto (F Minor) is more interesting to my ear.  Chopin can seem trivial and superficial, or he can be grand and profound, as in all the Sonatas (which are masterpieces), the Ballades (who can beat the perverse violence that closes the G Minor Ballade?), and at least the C# Minor Scherzo.  The military polonaises don’t work so well for me, but we’ll come back to that.  I tend to disagree that Chopin was only a miniaturist composer.  His large piano solo works provide real adventure; he just doesn’t need orchestra.

The piano performance by Yuja Wang seemed a bit light on the loafers.  Her dress was gorgeous, but, as some male patrons noticed, “showy”.  I could ask, why not perform a Hummel concerto instead of Chopin – but then the program isn’t all “Polish”.

Like Jonathan Biss last week, the pianist was offering CD’s for sales, and this time the line was longer after the show to go to the Green Room for autographs.  She also got two encores, but maybe female pianists have that advantage.

After the intermission, we heard the work I came for, the Symphony #3 in D Major, Op. 29, by Tchaikovsky. This work is big, episodic (in five movements, almost like a suite) and loud, and seems to demand ballet.  (“The Nutcracker” was playing next door.)  Some of the passages make me remember the young Clark Kent (Tom Welling on the CWTV series) showing off his “speed” as if a dancer, and I think this music was used a few times in the background score (I’ve seen at least one young man do this – maybe extraterrestrials walk among us).  The program notes compare the work to Robert Schumann’s “Rhenish”,  but the style of the work (even if a bit Germanic at times) is quite different.  The first movement pays its dues with a slow introduction in D Minor before bursting forth with its blazing D Major scale theme in the Exposition.  The development offers fugal writing.  The second movement is an intermezzo in German style (anticipating Mahler , maybe). The third movement is a wonderful, passionate slow movement with plenty of ballet motion.  The fourth movement is an elfish scherzo (almost like Mendelssohn), and the finale makes a grandiose experience with a true Polonaise. This works better for me than Chopin’s own exercises in the form.  The development section, leveraging the rhythmic complexity of the triple-time dance, becomes a complex fugue (we don’t have to wait for the Mahler Fifth), and the recapitulation turns the Polonaise into a “Big Tune” before whirling us away into a presto coda, with themes progressively compacting into simpler balletic repetitions, crashing down on final D’s with drum rolls. Imagine dirty dancing in a gay disco to this music, or, try "Dancing with the Stars", too.  (I just wonder if the men really look like men on DWTS anymore.)
The “Applause” theme in my last sonata uses the “tritone” modulation concept to produce tonal ambiguity and link tonal centers in an unusual way.  When I first envisioned it, it seemed to have too much affinity to the Chopin A Major Polonaise, as the first downward interval is the same.  Mut my theme starts changing time signatures (from 4/4 to 6/4) and key signatures quickly, and has not relation to the polonaise rhythm, except maybe for one measure!

Here’s a YouTube version of the Finale of the Symphony #3 played by Edvard Tchivzhel and the USSR State Symphony, link.

Wikipedia attribution link for Krakow, Poland picture. I was there one night in May 1999 (I arrived that morning on the train East from Berlin, visited Auschwitz that day/) 

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