Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Kansas City Symphony Mahler 6

“My Sixth seems to be yet another hard nut, one that our critics' feeble little teeth cannot crack.”

So wrote Gustav Mahler to conductor Wilhelm Mengelberg. Mahler's Symphony # 6 in A minor was composed during a more contented period in the composer's life, 1902-1903 but not premiered until 1906. Yet this symphony is among the least affirming of his world encompassing symphonies; it is among his most inward and autobiographical as well. Perhaps because it is a such a tough nut to crack it is, along with Symphony # 7, one of his lesser performed symphonies. With a fine 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th  under their belts, the Kansas City Symphony under the direction of Music Director Michael Stern have added a most stellar 6th to their Mahler cannon.

Stern took the 1st movement at a true allegro, a welcome change from some of the more recent recordings and performances. The opening exposition, while well executed was somewhat short on drama. Certainly fine, but would not challenge the best of performances. The soaring “Alma” theme was not a sticky, sentimental mess, but a heartfelt and maybe even a bit of a flirty statement, well integrated into the somewhat schizophrenic mood of this movement, unique in all of symphonic literature.

The gentle slower middle section benefited from the usual fine winds and strings of the orchestra. Some listeners may like more forward cowbells; Stern correctly had them as a distant texture, maybe too distant at a few points but they served their purpose to take us back to a cold, clear alpine meadow. This interlude is not “a cow looking over a fence” pastoralism, but a wistful and melancholy respite from the martial exposition and recapitulation. Stern brought out this section's often soaring lyricism but never lost touch with the overall dramatic mood of the movement. If the exposition was a bit slack , the recap was all drama and  everything fell into place. Stern did not rush headlong to the end, but kept the pot boiling letting the work move forth as a force of nature, bringing this monumental statement to a dramatic close.

We could debate for hours over the Scherzo/Andante or Andante/Scherzo question. You almost need a score card to keep track of the players who made the switches over the last 107 years. While most of us “grew up” with the Scherzo/Andante order, Mahler only conducted the work Andante/Scherzo. While some say placing the Andante second spoils some harmonic and thematic connections, it also makes sense. It is more structurally correct in this most classical of Mahler's symphonies and expands on the nostalgic mood of the center section of the first movement. The counter argument says Scherzo/Andante is how Mahler conceived the work and is perhaps more psychologically logical. The andante acts as a balancing intermezzo providing a relaxation of tension between the dramatic Allegro/Scherzo and the monumental half-hour finale.

As Kurt Vonnegut always said whenever he was faced with something unsolvable... “so it goes.”

Stern chose the Andante/Scherzo order for this performance. Whatever order one might prefer, suffice to say Stern's Andante was a supreme achievement. Never overwrought or totally sappy, this movement clearly was Mahler's escape from the torment of the opening movement and the tormented and very real life dramas of the scherzo and finale. Yet Stern wisely kept some tension in the phrasing and tempo, reminding us that the edge was not far away. Translucent strings, wonderful oboe, violin, trumpet, horn and clarinet solos combined with the gentle but insistent flowing tempo made this an especially moving and revelatory performance.

The macabre scherzo with its bone-rattle xylophone (used nowhere else in Mahler's symphonies) jolts us to stark reality as the unrelenting march rhythm returns. The movement is marked “Wuchtig” or “heavy” and Stern took this marking to heart with an appropriately forceful tempo full of accented downbeats. As called upon, the woodwinds, especially the fine clarinet section, shrieked with merciless terror and the brass snarled menacingly. In the trio sections, ironically marked “Altväterisch” (literally “old father-like” or “old fashioned”), Stern let the menace slack just enough for contrast but made sure we knew these episodes of nostalgic glances to the past are the real tragedy of this work, the  brief  reminiscence of “what was and will never be again” that haunted the composer and in reality haunts all of us. The final measures of this most dark movement collapse after a perfectly integrated but climactic tam tam stroke into fitful short motives, with superb contributions from the bass clarinet and contra-bassoon. Stern and Timothy Jepson, principal timpani took care to make the final timpani beats not just an ambiguous ending but hinted at a beginning of a funeral march; which further justifies the placing of the scherzo third as they foretell the return of the hammering fate motive in the finale.

The finale leaves us with another question.... two or three hammer blows? But before that becomes relevant, Stern and company pulled out all the stops for a most incredible and dramatic performance of this movement, some of the most humanly emotional music ever penned. The opening ambiguous, harp laced chords literally soar into the commanding statement of the “Fate” theme, plunging headlong into this most indescribable music, both lyrical and tormented. Stern's trademark attention to detail left no stone unturned, the music soared, whispered, marched and ultimately collapsed into despair, The heavy brass was mostly well balanced, only occasionally they got out of hand, but never to the point of annoyance. The all important hammer blows of fate were well done, commanding but not so much as to totally seem out of place. The audience members near me probably wanted to slap me over my  subtle  “YES” with clenched fist pumping when I saw principal percussionist Christopher McLaurin reach for the hammer a third time. Mahler withdrew it, but it just adds that nth degree of finality to this most autobiographical movement. The final statement of the fate motive was shattering, the audience stunned to silence. Stern took his time with the final diminuendo and quiet pizzicato, creating a breathtaking ending where one could often find it anti-climactic.

“The only Sixth, despite the (Beethoven) Pastoral.”

Alban Berg wrote the above to his colleague and composer Anton Webern. I think those who heard these performances would agree.

Friday, January 11, 2013

New Name

Puggingham Palace has a new name, "Pictures on Silence". The name is taken from a quote by the great conductor Leopold Stokowski:“A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.” Since 99% of my posts in the past couple of years have been about concerts, recordings and music, I thought the title needed a change to reflect the blog's purpose.

For the last couple of seasons, I have been featured reviewer and blogger for the Kansas City Symphony, a role I relish since I get to spread the word about our remarkable local orchestra. In late 2012, I began contributing to "I Care If You Listen", a web magazine focusing on contemporary classical music. As this role has grown, I found my reviews quoted, re-tweeted, and referred to by the artists and sometimes the record companies. I always cringed when I saw the "Puggingham Palace" moniker and wondered if  the unusual title lessened my credibility. So a search for a new name was conducted and I found the one noted above by Stokowski.

"Pictures on Silence" just seemed to neatly sum up the glorious art of music. Music is nothing but organized sound, said Edgard Varèse, so silence is the canvas on which the composer and musicians realize their art.Pictures on Silence is music reviews from an audience member's view. I am not a professional musician and do not have a music degree. However, after years of listening (I started listening to classical music around 12 years old and now 44 years later I show no signs of stopping) I think I know a bit about what makes a great performance, what can move an audience to bravos or to boos. I may not be able to point out that the 3rd bassoon did not correctly articulate the dotted triplets at measure 32, but frankly... with the exception of the 3rd bassoon, who really cares?

Most of my concert review posts are from the music scene in and around Kansas City. We may not be the world's Mecca for music like London or New York, but our local orchestra is outstanding, we get some of the best artists in the business for recitals and have an incredible performing arts center that is the envy of many. If I get a chance to hear a concert elsewhere, you will read about it here.Look for a couple of concert reviews coming up with the Kansas City Symphony and a short hop to St Louis in February for a rare performance of the Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony.

Thanks for reading!


Wednesday, January 09, 2013

KC Symphony Reference Recordings: Elgar and Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Wasps – Aristophanic Suite
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves
Sir Edward Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”)

Michael Stern, Kansas City Symphony

Reference Recordings RR129

On the surface a rather standard program of English music that has been recorded by practically every conductor ever active in a studio. “Enigma”and “Greensleeves” each have over 130 recordings currently listed in the catalog. “The Wasps” has not fared as well, but the Overture is certainly familiar and a frequent filler in recordings. What makes this release an event is that a “provincial” US orchestra is daring to record standard repertoire in glorious sound, challenging many classic recordings with ease. As with two earlier Reference Recordings releases, “The Tempest” (combining Sir Arthur Sullivan's and Sibelius' incidental music to Shakespeare's play) and "Britten's Orchestra" (Sea Interludes and Passacaglia, Young People's Guide and Sinfonia da Requiem) Michael Stern leads the Kansas City Symphony in a sumptuously recorded and generous all English program.

Vaughan Williams took the overture and 4 episodes from his 1909 incidental music to Aristophanes' play “The Wasps” to create the popular “Aristophanic Suite” in 1912. Vaughan Williams makes no attempt to recreate ancient Greece, but sets the play firmly in turn of the century England. “Wasps” as a play is witty and a bit absurd, thus the music follows suit. The Overture buzzes with all the vibrancy (and even a hint of menace) of a swarm of bees before launching into the swift, sea shanty inspired march. Stern takes the movement at a fair clip, faster than I am used to, but it does the music no harm.

The fine sound brings out all the pointillistic detail of the delicate march comprising the first Entr'acte. The hilarious folk song laced “March Past of the Kitchen Utensils” is suitably witty and absurd, with excellent tempo choices and much good humor. The second “Entr’acte” is in Vaughn Williams' more pastoral vein with languid woodwind and violin solos, lovingly executed and perfectly recorded. Hear the sweet violin solo at about 2:20 into the movement with the subtle wind counter-melodies clearly captured. A masterpiece of recording balance. Stern's final “Ballet and Final Tableau” is a model of swaggering hijinks, absurdity and charm. Stern keeps the schizophrenic music under tight control, but lets it dance and laugh as it needs to. Some performances plow through this section, but Stern's wise tempo keeps it going without a headlong rush.

Since the recorded competition is small but mighty (Boult, Previn, Elder, in the suite plus Handley and Marriner in the overture) this all around well done performance is the one to have.

From the achingly beautiful opening flute solo from Principal Michael Gordon, through the more agitated fantasia middle section and finally the harp laced reprise of the melody, Stern's “Fantasia on Greensleeves” provides a charming intermezzo between the two larger works. Never sappy, the fine sonics allow us to hear each note of the harp beneath the canopy of rich strings. A performance that is as jewel-like as the work itself.

Elgar's Masterpiece of the the variation form Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”) was composed in 1899 and immediately gained world wide popularity. The “enigma” is not so much the identity of the person portrayed in each variation, but rather what exactly is the original theme, since it is never actually played. Above all that, Elgar wrote some highly original and tuneful music.

Overall, Stern's reading is clear, well paced and thoroughly enjoyable. Some highlights are a powerful and energetic Variation IV (W.M.B), an intimate Variation VI (Isabel), beautifully blended woodwinds in Variation VIII (W.N.), a jolly bulldog-gruff Variation XI (G.R.S..and Dan the bulldog) and an evocative, colorful Variation XIII (xxx), with the Mendelssohn quote eloquently done by principal clarinet Raymond Santos. The chugging timpani, evoking the churning of a boat are stunningly captured as a texture as much as a sound.

And the ever popular Nimrod is a very model of English pomp and circumstance (I could not resist). The opening, chillingly pianissimo chorale is captured perfectly in this demonstration quality recording. Stern's Variation IX does not so much accelerate but progresses like a force of nature; the grand conclusion arrives in true British fashion with glory and nobility.. No annoying sentimentality or bombast here. The final variation, portraying Sir Edward himself is a fitting, joyous conclusion, Note the clarion clear organ pedals at the very end, which greatly enriches and emboldens the grand final chords, Maybe one or two of the great English ensembles and conductors have imbued this celebrated piece with a speck more Edwardian nobility, but Stern and KC have issued a modern challenge to the classic recordings of Sir Andrew Davis, Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Edward himself.

Praise and thanks to RR for the most thoughtful and informative booklet, only in English however. Each work is vividly described by Richard E. Rodda and each variation of “Enigma” is identified and illustrated with commissioned drawings by San Francisco artist Joel Fontaine. Readable, enlightening CD booklets are almost a surprise in this day of skimpy multi-lingual booklets or no information at all when listening to a download or music service.

Double praise Reference Recordings usual outstanding state-of-the-art engineering by producer David Frost and recording engineer Keith O. Johnson.

Don't know why, but the brilliant “Britten's Orchestra” release did not stay in the catalog for long, so grab this while you can. Lovers of English music will not want to be without it..