Saturday, December 01, 2012

Valcuha and Biss perform Szymanowski, Mozart, Ravel, Debussy for NSO; the Mozart concerto is indeed a "complete" curiosity

The National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC offered “youth” tonight – a young guest conduct and pianist. Yup, bring on the kids.  Well, not exactly.  It takes a lot to play with the major orchestras these days. But it may not “take a long time” to become a successful artist, for the talented and hard-working.

The conductor was Juraj Valcuha, 36, and it was his opening selection that attracted me to the concert. That was the Concert Overture in E Major, Op. 12 (1905) by Karol Szymanowski.  I reviewed that composer’s violent opera “King Roger” and his two symphonies in September here.  The Overture, published at age 23, is a thick and exuberant Sonata-allegroi very easy  to follow in form, but with themes that seem a bit contrived.  The style does resemble Richard Strauss, and the program notes compares it to that composer’s “Don Juan”, but this piece is much more conventional in form. The opening figure  resembles a similar ditty in the last movement of the late Sinfonietta in D Minor by Alexander Zemlinsky.   Unlike the Strauss piece, the ending is “formally” loud and crashes to its logically triumphant conclusion, not allowing the listener to react.  Sometimes I had the feeling that I was watching a treasure hunt sequence in an Alfred Hitchcock film.  Maybe the music would work for Christopher Nolan (“Inception”) – although Nolan does well with Hans Zimmer.  Yet, for all the piece’s conventionality and rhetoric, I liked it. Valchua did his level best to keep the sound transparent (that means, like middle Mahler).

The next entry was the Piano Concerto #13 in C Major by Mozart, played by pianist Jonathan Biss, 32. K387b (or K415). (I don’t have high German characters for a double “s” on my keyboard, nor do I have accents, carets or cedillas.)  There is a private joke that the “initiated” will get: the artists did not choose to perform the “incomplete” (depending on how you see things) Coronation Concerto for this particular concert.  Actually, the #13 may sound a bit like a preview of #21, but the opening movement has a lot of the martial element and sleek tonal transitions that Beethoven would use himself in his own C Major Piano Concerto (#1).  The second movement is a simple Andante in F.  The Rondo is a bit of a curious musical offering.  It opens with a rollicking 6/8 subject in C (easy to score in Sibelius, probably), but the first episode (as Mozart anticipated TV sitcoms) is a curious Largo in 2/4 and C Minor – unusual in Mozart’s finales.  The piece slows down at the end for a simple quiet ending, again unusual and a bit foppish, perhaps courtly.  (The notes say that only three of Mozart’s concerti do this -- it's rare with major piano concerti, although Furtwangler's massive piano concerto on Marco Polo ends quietly, too.)  I guess if you’re not going to pick a “recomposed” concerto (#26), pick an eccentric, understated one like this.  I do remember reading #27 in high school, and it always seemed subdued for late Mozart.

The second half of the program gave us a tour of impressionism.  (No more German post-romanticism.) The five movement “Mother Goose Suite”  (“Ma Mere l’Oye”) by Maurice Ravel emphasizes slow tempi, and open sound, and a nice climax at the end of the last piece.  This is a piece for families and children, and pets.  I don’t think that Richard Parker (the tiger from “Life of Pi”) gets noted in the piece, but if Ravel were alive today, he would he impressed by the big cat’s desire to become a good person.  (Hey. There’s a cute cat on SNL tonight as I type this.)

The last composition is the warhorse, “La Mer”, by Claude Debussy, the Rosicrucian.  This three-part tone poem always sounds lush and pseudo-romantic, much more so that some of Debussy’s more disciplined works (like “Iberia”, which I had a Munch recording of as a boy, or “Jeux”).  It can be loud when it needs to be.  I’ve always felt that Britten gives me a more  cogent idea of what the ocean is like (as in “Billy Budd”) than Debussy does.  The one major work of Debussy that I would love to hear performed live is the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian – I was a way when it was performed last year.  I have an old Bernstein record of it.

After the concert, Jonathan Biss signed CD’s in the Green Room, near the entrance to the Kennedy Center.  His website is here. He focuses on Beethoven and Schumann, and I see that he has performed the big Fantasy in C, which was Schumann’s idea of an extra post-Op. 111 Beethoven Sonata (see Jan. 20, 2011 posting here – I just love that March). I didn’t see the “Kreisleriana” mentioned there – part of any pianist’s initiation.  (It may have taken Schumann a “long time” to compose it.)

Note the Beethoven Sonata #5 finale here, ends quietly, like the aforementioned Mozart. 

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