Central Park in the Dark
Rhapsody in Blue
The Unanswered Question
Amériques [Revised Version]
Wayne Marshall (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 11 November, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
This was the second of two concerts featuring an all-American programme (a third was conducted by Marin Alsop, as scheduled) from which the scheduled conductor, Antonio Pappano, was obliged to withdraw owing, apparently, to a shoulder injury.
Kristjan Järvi was the substitute in both instances. His printed biography boldly announced that he “has forged a special connection with audiences across the globe’, declared that he is “renowned as one of the best communicators on the international stage” and, most daringly, asserted that he is “like Leonard Bernstein reborn”.
Whilst I cannot for a moment concur with the latter view, he certainly led efficient, effective performances which amounted to a little over an hour’s worth of music, if that.
Ives described Central Park in the Dark (dating from 1906) as “a picture-in-sounds of the sounds of nature and of happenings that man would hear some 30 years or so ago (before the combustion engine and radio monopolized the earth and air)” – a typically pithy summation of what is, in effect, an extremely evocative ‘tone poem’, the music being way ahead of its time with its blend of seemingly disparate elements, the whole underpinned by tranquil strings over which other instruments make their contributions and subsequently build to a somewhat raucous climax.
This performance was secure and colourful, though one could imagine a more atmospheric realisation of the quieter passages, and greater roughness would not have gone amiss at its culmination. This is Central Park, New York, not St James’s in London.
Gershwin’s marvellous – and, indeed, ground-breaking – Rhapsody in Blue was, sadly, marred by the pianist interpolating his own ideas in place of the composer’s during the two extended solo sections for the piano. Whilst one might be impressed by Wayne Marshall’s dexterity, it seemed astonishing to replace Gershwin’s thoughts with what sounded like improvised cadenzas, including references to Gershwin scores which were not even composed when Rhapsody in Blue was first performed in 1924. The accompaniment was well-managed, though I some of the tempos were on the fast side – almost uncomfortably so. The performance was greeted rapturously, but I felt deprived of hearing Gershwin’s own score, as opposed to a concoction devised by the soloist.
The Unanswered Question (1908), was intended as a companion piece to Central Park in the Dark – and shares a similar format with quiet strings providing a ‘background’ to the trumpet’s repeated question and the flutes’ restless answers. A pity the option of having the strings (a much reduced section in this performance) ‘hidden’ was not followed (though one can appreciate the logistical difficulties), but the trumpet was placed distantly (in the balcony) – not an alternative in any edition of the score with which I am familiar.
This quietly probing masterpiece was well-realised, with the flutes providing remarkably accurate playing of extremely taxing music. The difficulty of keeping the strings really quiet throughout, however, was not entirely avoided.
Amériques was the first work that Edgard Varèse completed, following his emigration to America from France in 1915. The huge score was completed in 1921 and first performed by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1926, following which the composer made some revisions and reduced the orchestration somewhat.
A work clearly in the shadow of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Varèse’s monumental conception was intended to symbolise ‘new worlds’ – not just the geographical one of the title, but also in space and in the mind.
But if Amériques was also designed to be a portrait of the New York urban landscape, then the composer must have found it a pretty uncomfortable environment, for this is music of tension and no little degree of violence, with percussion exotica such as sirens and ‘lion’s roar’ adding to the, at times, frantic mêlée. There are moments – brief ones – of repose, but incessant clamour is this piece’s main characteristic. In this respect, this was a convincing realisation, with the LSO’s percussion on cracking form and other sections responding duly. One wondered whether at times the intensity of volume wasn’t almost too much – but the work was undoubtedly given with considerable panache and its impact was unquestionably visceral.