Who Is Afraid of 20th Century Music? Volumes 3 & 4 – Ingo Metzmacher

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Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Ingo Metzmacher

Volume 3 – SXP 130081 – 77’06” – recorded live 31 December 2001

Volume 4 – SXP 130082 – 78’18” – recorded live 31 December 2002

Both recorded in Hamburg’s Musikhalle

CDs distributed by Sony Music in Germany, Austria and Switzerland; try Amazon UK and Germany for availability


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: January 2004
CD No: See below
Duration: NULL

It started with The Millennium Concert on – not surprisingly – 31st December 1999. Ingo Metzmacher, Music Director for the City of Hamburg, held a concert with the Philharmonic Orchestra – surveying the 20th-century through ’shorts’ ranging from Bernstein to Zimmermann and from Khachaturian to Plate. Issued by EMI as Who Is Afraid of 20th Century Music, the disc made an informative breviary of an endlessly diverse century. Metzmacher and the Hamburg Phil repeated the enterprise on 31st December 2000, but ’Who 2’ was something of a disappointment – both in choice of music and the follow-through between items.

Metzmacher’s EMI contract came to an end soon afterwards, which left potential listeners with the prospect of New Year in Hamburg if they wished to keep abreast of proceedings. Happily, Sony Music stepped in as distributors to ensure that the series continued on CD: Volumes 3 and 4 duly appeared and Volume 5 is set for imminent release, on 26 January. Moreover, these latter discs have recaptured the sheer unpredictability of the original concert, as readers of this article will discover.

Volume 3 opens with William Walton’s Portsmouth Point overture – not entirely idiomatic in phrasing, but bringing out a Stravinskian rhythmic bite. Oliver Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks – a showpiece which ought to be every self-respecting orchestra’s repertory – seems more to the Hamburg Phil’s liking, Metzmacher finding ironic nostalgic in its scintillating musical pun. Heard in its filleted revision for symphony orchestra, rather than the lengthier jazz-orchestra original, George Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony will delight those who reckon Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody his orchestral masterpiece. The fast-and-loose play with jazz idioms makes it a foil to Gunther Schuller’s more subtle Little Blue Devil – one of Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee in which this seminal figure first amalgamated then-contemporary jazz and classical practice.

A far cry from the inward intensity Dieter Schnebel draws from a fragment of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in his Mahler-Moment (one of several ’transfigurations’ in his Re-Visionen cycle). Yale-Princeton Football Game is among the earliest of Charles Ives’s musical experiments – a ’take-off’ whose vivid onomatopoeia is the precursor to his visionary later works. Inspired by football of the European rather than American variety, Bohuslav Martinu’s Half-Time is actually an overview of the final stages of a ’match’ – crowd restiveness and stoppage-time included.

Metzmacher is in his element here and in the overture to Dmitri Kabalevsky’s opera Colas Breugnon, social satire from the period when the implications of Socialist Realism had begun to hit home. Anton Plate draws on the concept of experience through encounter in passing, an oblique but intriguing piecewhich ought to have taken the palm in the Masterprize 2003 competition for ’new’ music. Bernd Alois Zimmermann has a reputation second to none for angst-ridden expression in post-war composition, but Rheinische Kirmestänze is as lively and affectionate a sequence of fairground dances as could be imagined. Similarly, Arvo Pärt might not be thought first choice for an end-of-year ’bash’, but this string orchestra transcription of his much-arranged Fratres brings a welcome thoughtfulness to proceedings – preferable in any case to yet another outing for a certain other ’adagio for strings’.

Modern life breaks in with a vengeance in M50, Colin Matthews’s 50th-birthday tribute to Michael Tilson Thomas – here ’finding the groove’ in the hands of a conductor of equal renown. The concert draws to a close with three ’lollipops’ (though whether Beecham would consider them such is another matter): the final Dance from Shostakovich’s iconoclastic early ballet The Golden Age, Ferde Grofé’s rumbustious portrayal of Huckleberry Finn from his Mississippi Suite (less familiar but more cohesive than the Grand Canyon Suite), and the breezy Galop from Aram Khachaturian’s Masquerade – which must have sent all those revelling Hamburgians out into the night in suitably high spirits.

Volume 4 opens with Bacchanale, Jacques Ibert relaxing his customary reserve in a piece which could yet regain the popularity it enjoyed in the ’50s and early ’60s. Metzmacher gives the orchestra its head, without minimising on suavity in the central section. Musical magpie and stylistic chameleon, Erwin Schulhoff died during internment in Bavaria mid-way through World War Two. His ballet Ogelala finds him taking on Stravinsky and Prokofiev at their own game, and falling well short of the mark. Fun even so, and Waffentanz makes a fair impact in this context. On a different level as a composer, Silvestre Revueltas combined Mexican idioms and European techniques to an often-revelatory degree – witness Sensemayá, a ’snake dance’ of suitably venomous import, if a shade under-powered here.

An event such as this provides a rare chance to hear the Interlude that Witold Lutoslawski composed for insertion between his violin and orchestra works Partita and Chain 2. A bewitching, kaleidoscopic succession of timbres, judged to perfection here. Wolfgang Rihm puts his Expressionist credentials to audibly amusing use in Walzer 3, the third of three Drägender Walzer, which display a curious (and presumably coincidental) affinity with Alfred Schnittke’s music of the late ’70s.

A musical miniaturist par excellence, Anatoly Lyadov could feature regularly on such occasions, and a lively account of the musical evocation Baba Yaga does not disappoint. Composer and impresario, Rolf Liebermann is best remembered in the former capacity for his Jazz Band Concerto – whose spirit informs Furioso, a latterday Italian overture whose pile-driving outer sections frame an interlude of eloquent calm.

Metzmacher has championed the music of Thomas Adès in the UK and in Germany (the opera Powder Her Face being in the repertoire of the Hamburg Staatsoper), and finds a suitably inscrutable humour in the rhythmic and textural machinations of These Premises are Alarmed. Jean Sibelius wrote a fair number of occasional pieces: the Prelude to his incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest isn’t strictly one of them, but its vivid layering of musical atmosphere and psychological acuity certainly makes its mark. And what an inspired stroke to follow it with Poul Ruders’s Tundra – a ’Hommage à Sibelius’ which invokes the previous piece from a present-day perspective (a pity that applause was retained between these two items). In terms of its time, place and aesthetic, Wilhelm Killmayer’s Zittern und Wagen is a counterpart to the Rihm, albeit with a more winsome humour.

Into the home strait with Malambo – famous last number of Alberto Ginastera’s ballet Estancia, sounding suitably raucous in Metzmacher’s hands. George Gershwin’s Promenade follows in urbane contrast. A transcription from ’Fred and Ginger’ musical, Shall We Dance?, its insouciance is tailor-made for an occasion such as this. The inter-war sophistication continues with Shostakovich’s now popular Tahiti Trot – a sparkling transcription of the Vincent Youmans’s showstopper Tea for Two, done here with appealing wistfulness. To end, another Galop – this time from Dmitri Kabalevsky’s The Comedians, given with zest aplenty as the New Year circus heads on out onto the streets.

So, two excellently-compiled discs which make entertaining listening for 20th-century buffs and novices alike. Ingo Metzmacher will be leaving Hamburg for Netherlands Opera in the not too distant future, so perhaps the Dutch will get to enjoy a little modern mayhem? And should those in Vienna fancy a change from the usual New Year’s Day roster, he could surely be relied upon to enlarge the repertoire of waltzes and polkas for the occasion – and not just those by the Strauss Family!

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