Sunday, May 22, 2011

Kansas City Symphony: Brahms, Beethoven and Prokofiev

Ask any of my classical music loving friends and they will tell you Brahms is not high on my list of favorites. There is a notable exception to this and that is the first piece on this weekend's Kansas City Symphony concert, Music Director Michael Stern on the podium: the lovely and compact "Alto Rhapsody", opus 53 performed by Mezzo-Soprano Sasha Cooke as solo and the Kansas City Symphony Chorus. Beethoven's sunny Symphony # 1 and Prokofiev's dramatic cantata "Alexander Nevsky" completed the program.

Written as a wedding present for Robert and Clara Schumann's daughter Julie, this gentle and yet frequently passionate jewel is not frequently heard in concert, probably due to the requirement of a solo alto/contralto and a sizable male chorus. Pity, for it is one of Brahms' most heartfelt and ingenious works. One of my aforementioned problems with Brahms is my perception that his orchestration and sound is colorless and conventional. Although the Rhapsody uses a standard classical orchestra, the deft writing for the alto voice coupled with the subtle power of the male chorus combines to create a stunningly beautiful and powerful message. The chorus is used sparingly, but to say it is in the background negates its important contribution.

Unlike some singers with such a cognac colored voice, Cooke's is clarion clear and free of wobble. The first two verses (from Goethe's "Harzreise im Winter") were appropriately anguished and touched with poignancy. When the clouds lift and the mood and key changes ("If there is on your psalter Father of love, one note his ear can hear then refresh his heart!"), Cooke's voice lightened and soared, the mood fully warmed by the clear and superbly balanced chorus. A most lovely and sincere performance by an artist at the height of her voice, accompanied by a fully seasoned and capable chorus and orchestra.

Beethoven was still under the spell of Papa Haydn when he wrote his Symphony # 1 in the last years of the 18th century, yet one can hear themes, rhythms and motives that will come to full fruition in the Eroica and beyond. Stern and the orchestra were truly in full command of this charming work, bringing out the drama and tension where appropriate and yet milking all its grace and wit as well. Especially noteworthy was the fleet and limber "Menuetto, Allegro molto e vivace" 3rd movement, a full symphonic scherzo in all but name, with precise strings and gaily chattering winds. The finale was taken at a brisk but not inappropriate tempo. The opening slow introduction was colored with the right amount of drama, the skittering strings taking the work to a grand conclusion.

Editorial: But please, KCS audience, WHO (???) is behind all the clapping after each movement? You didn't used to do that, but suddenly it seems all the rage. You all aren't rubes, you know better!

Prokofiev, like his countryman Shostakovich did to a much greater extent, turned to film music to make a living. Prokofiev, however, took his some of his film work and reworked it into concert forms. The score to "Alexander Nevsky", a 1938 Sergei Eisenstein film of the same name, was thus soon reworked by the composer into a dramatic cantata for chorus, mezzo solo and orchestra.

The work in 7 sections culled from the longer film score demands a large orchestra and chorus. Happily, Stern and all the forces delivered a dramatic and convincing performance. The usual God-awful Lyric acoustics muddled the chorus when the orchestra was in full throttle, but for the most part the chorus and orchestra were well balanced. The chorus seemed to be well drilled in this rhythmically challenging music and thus were precise in their diction and clean in their entrances. They certainly could menacingly shout and snarl when called upon, which was quite often.

The opening "Russia under the Mongols" dripped with melancholy over the occupation of Mother Russia, while the chorus foreshadowed the coming battles with their menacing tone. The "Crusaders in Pskov" section mockingly used Latin to evoke the brutal invaders, the chorus and large orchestra oozing with barely contained outrage; leading directly to the boldly confident "Arise ye Russian People", filled with folk song and dance.

Many consider "The Battle on the Ice" section the epitome of battle music and one of the most effective uses of music in film. Stern and the vast forces dug into the music with a furious and cinematic performance. Here the big sound of the full orchestra sometimes shoved the chorus into the background, but the whole sound was perfectly overwhelming.

While "Battle on the Ice" may be the more famous, the following "The Field of the Dead" is in my opinion Prokofiev's supreme achievement. A dark lament of a girl seeking her lost lover, Sasha Cooke's dramatic, tender yet almost shell shocked performance was well neigh perfect. Again, as in the Brahms, Cooke was dark and creamy but never becoming clotted cream. Her lament was sincere and frankly, for me, the highlight of the work. The orchestra and chorus brought the work to a cacophonous, huzzah! conclusion with Alexander's triumphal "Entry into Pskov", bells, brass, percussion (it was fun to watch the percussionist mount the ladder to strike the huge tuned metal plate) and chorus to the fore.

As an aside, it is somewhat unnerving to realize that I have only two more concerts in my now comfortable (well as comfortable as one can be in the cramped balcony, maybe "familiar" is a better term) Right Center Balcony Row G seat 7 perch. The new Kauffman Center is about done, the orchestra was treated to its first rehearsal there (thus making the Beethoven 1st the first music for orchestra heard in the new hall) and from all the buzz is quite spectacular. Sad in a way to see the lovely and historic (oh what great musicians have performed there) become redundant, but KC has a glut of theatre and concert hall venues so I do not see a rosy future for the old girl.

Nevertheless, performances like these make the legacy of the Lyric all the more wonderful and important.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mahler 10

Gustav Mahler died on this date 100 years ago. At that moment one of the greatest musical voices was stilled at the all too young age of 50. Racked with disease (which simple antibiotics could have cured, but alas had not been discovered as of yet) saddened with grief over a daughter who had recently died and the revelation of his unfaithful wife Alma and her affairs, many who saw him thought he looked 25 years older.

Mahler spent much of his last 3 years in New York at both the Metropolitan Opera, overseeing some widely acclaimed productions and then at the New York Philharmonic where some say his influence reigns today. Sadly, since this was before recording an orchestra became practical, we have no record of a Mahler led performance. We are poorer for that.

Despite his busy opera and concert schedule, Mahler found time to compose in the summer when he returned to Vienna and his summer cottage in the mountains. There he set to paper, in these last days, 3 masterpieces, the 9th Symphony, "Das Lied von der Erde" and the mysterious, controversial and often misunderstood unfinished Symphony # 10.

If the 9th and "Das Lied" are stories unto their own, the 10th is worthy of a novel.

Mahler worked feverishly on the 10th during the summer of 1910 in Austria. He had completed the 9th and Das Lied but had yet to have them performed. Dear Gustav thought he had cheated the curse of the ninth (a superstition that all great composers will die after completing their 9th symphony, as did Beethoven) by interjecting "Das Lied" in between the 8th and 9th, making the unnumbered "Das Lied" a de facto 9th. Thus a grand 10th was planned and soon was making great progress before he left Austria in September to fulfill his obligations in New York. Becoming progressively sicker, he returned to Europe in April and died in Vienna in May. The 10th, partially done but awaiting the summer Mahler never saw, lay incomplete.

If his wife Alma and friend Bruno Walter had their way, we would have heard none of the work at all. The opening Adagio was complete and fully orchestrated and scored. The other 4 movements were in various stages of completion, but the music, the notes as it were, were all there. What was missing was orchestration, dynamics, phrasing and the inevitable revisions. Because of that only the Adagio was ever published but rarely played. Alma forbid any completions.. Walter wanted it all destroyed. I have never forgiven him for that.

Since there is much material to work on, several completions have been made of this remarkable work. Clinton Carpenter completed a version as early as 1949 but only published a final version in 1966, Hans Wollschläger worked on a version in the 50's but gave up. English musicologist Joe Wheeler did several versions in the 50's and 60's as well. Another English musicologist Deryck Cooke published his version in 1964 after rousing much interest in the work in a pioneering radio broadcast in 1960. Cooke's version was the first to be performed in 1964 in London with the LSO under the direction of Berthold Goldschmidt, who, truth be known, contributed more than he has been credited. These historic performances, plus Cooke's 1960 illustrated lecture can be heard in a Testament release. Since then others have made their own versions, and all have their supporters, but that of Cooke (and subsequent revisions) has become the standard.

My tired eyes and hands can not permit me to go on all much longer, so I will spare you a note by note description of this fabulous work, it is one that has to be heard. Any completion of an unfinished work is an amalgam of compromise and educated guess work, and the Mahler 10th is no exception. But since the adagio was complete and so much of the music is there, what we have is a flawed, certainly not as Mahler intended, symphony that is so powerful it is hardly describable in words. Mahler was moving into a new sound world with the 10th (the 9th too for that matter); gone were the Wunderhorn Songs, the cowbells and folk instruments, replaced by lean, spare textures, darker sounds and the beginnings of dissonant expressionism. Mahler's anguish fills every page. The last movement begins with a muffled funeral drum (controversy rages to this day as to the number of beats, volume and texture of that drum), ends with a scream of pain and release to an angelic close. In between is one of the most achingly beautiful melodies ever written.

Something in this piece speaks to me like nothing else. I first heard it in the 70's on a Decatur Public Library LP of the first commercial recording by Ormandy/Philadelphia. Since then I have amassed every recording ever made, either LP, CD or download (we don't always talk about those). If you want a list of the recordings, go to the Wikipedia article on Mahler 10 there is a fine list there, compiled by yours truly. I never tire listening to it and it is playing now (Sanderling Berlin SO, one of my favorites) as I write.

Soon I will finish this little essay, grab a glass of wine and listen again to this creation. I will raise a toast to Gustav, immerse my being in the sound, occasionally close my eyes, and, as one would do upon seeing the ruins of antiquity, imagine what Mahler would have done if he had not passed to the great beyond 100 years ago today.