Sunday, January 16, 2011

Kansas City Symphony: Martinu, Grosse Fuge and Andre Watts

A performance of one of Martinu's 6 symphonies is always a welcome occasion. For me they are among the greatest 20th century examples of their form, along with the cycles of Sibelius and Shostakovich, and much more satisfying than the symphonies of Nielsen or Prokofiev. When the performance was as fine as last night's Kansas City Symphony performance, it is an even more delectable treat. Michael Stern, Music Director was on the podium in a program featuring the Martinu Symphony # 4, Beethoven's most fascinating and bizarre work, the Grosse Fuge, Op133 in a string orchestra arrangement by Felix Weingartner and the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto # 2 with piano legend Andre Watts as solo.

Two things that will kill a performance of a Martinu Symphony, an inattention to detail and slack rhythm, were not present at all in this fine performance. Stern milked the cinematic elements of the piece, let all the color and brilliant orchestration shine through and kept up a brisk but tenable pace. I heard more than one patron state that they absolutely enjoyed the work and had never heard a piece by Martinu before. Mission accomplished, Maestro.

The Beethoven Grosse Fuge is an acquired taste like scotch or pickled herring with sour cream. Since those delicacies are some of my favorites, it would then lead one to the conclusion that I enjoy the Grosse Fuge as well. The piece works best in its original string quartet version but the Weingartner arrangement for strings with basses doubling the cello is heard occasionally in concert. An overall well done performance, but the even more introspective central section of this sprawling, insanely incredible work lacked the necessary focus to negotiate the many changes of tempo, mood and thematic entrances. The Kansas City Symphony strings were at their best in the wild and wooly dramatic sections of this most grand and untamed fugue. As Stravinsky stated: [The Grosse Fuge] "is an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever."

While I was most thrilled with a chance for some live Martinu and the Grosse Fuge, I am sure most of the packed house was waiting for the Rachmaninoff and Andre Watts. Watts was a legend from his debut in the early 60's and championed by Leonard Bernstein, with whom Watts made many recordings. Most of these Columbia/CBS recordings have disappeared or have been abused, appearing in "100 Greatest Piano Hits" type of recordings, cheapening Watts' legacy. Now in his 60's, Watts is still a brilliant virtuoso and thus tossed off this demanding concerto like it was a piece of candy. Magisterial is the only way I could describe it. Stern and the orchestra provided stellar accompaniment and joined in the rapturous applause for this titan of the piano.

No comments: