MET Chamber Ensemble/Levine [Socrate … sur Incises]

4 Lieder, Op.12
sur Incises

Erin Morley, Susanna Phillips, Emalie Savoy (sopranos) & Tamara Mumford (mezzo-soprano)

Ken Noda (piano)

The MET Chamber Ensemble
James Levine

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 31 October, 2010
Venue: Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York City

James Levine. Photograph: Michael LutchThe last-minute addition of Webern’s “4 Lieder” to open the MET Chamber Ensemble program was very welcome. Erin Morley has a solid reputation as a coloratura, but if you weren’t already aware of this fact you’d probably never have guessed from her full-bodied, appealing soprano sound. The first song, ‘Der Tag ist vergangen’ on a poem by Rosegger, is written in the non-tonal twelve-tone style which Webern had fully embraced, but the phrasing and melodic flow is a holdover from the late-romantic era, and both Morley and pianist Ken Noda convincingly conveyed the song’s elegiac mood. The remaining songs make stronger use of the sudden changes in mood and timbre similar to those employed by Schoenberg in his works of the 1910s and 1920s. Webern makes particularly effective use of the piano in this regard; Noda lent a good balance of color and control, and Morley likewise employed nuanced changes in tone and enunciation to underscore the almost stream-of-consciousness nature of the remaining poems, particularly Bethge’s translation of Li-Tai Po (‘Die geheimnissvolle Flöte’).

The program-notes for the present performance of Satie’s “Socrate”, a “symphonic drama in three parts” that could be more accurately described as a small-scale oratorio, describe the debate over aesthetic judgments of the work as being “the composer’s masterpiece, a sarcastic musical joke, or a boring and worthless failed experiment”. There is a fourth possibility: the work, premiered in 1918, is a reactionary rebuke aimed simultaneously at the differing ‘modernist’ styles of Stravinsky and the Second Viennese School. The text, drawn from Plato’s “Dialogues”, focuses on three scenes from the life of Socrates. The music is relentlessly calm and almost devoid of strong expression, diatonic with sparing employment of pungent dissonances, with many phrases presaging music that would follow from the next generation of French composers, particularly Milhaud and Poulenc. The lengthy third section (longer than the first two combined) makes frequent use of repeating figures in the orchestra accompanying an almost chameleonic vocal line.

Tamara Mumford. Photograph: Dave Cross The largest version of the work, for four female voices, all trouser (or, more appropriately, tunic) roles, and chamber orchestra, was performed. James Levine chose four singers with strongly contrasting voices. Tamara Mumford has a uniformly warm and appealing sound; in the role of Alcibiade, she sings a soliloquy in praise of Socrates that, while restrained in expression, was never boring — she has a potent voice, and I’d love to hear her in repertoire that demands a wide dynamic range. Emalie Savoy’s brilliant tone lent brilliance and charm to Socrates, whose banter with Phédre in the second section of the work, sung by Susanna Phillips, is far more light-hearted than philosophical. Erin Morley conveyed Phédon’s story of Socrates’s last hours with requisite and convincing gravitas. The work ends with an effect that is quite startling, a sudden slowing of the tempo after Phédon’s description of Socrates passing away.

A couple of years ago in New York, Pierre Boulez led members of the Lucerne Festival Academy Ensemble in a performance of his sur Incises. Completed in 1998, sur Incises draws on material first used in the five-minute-long solo piano work, Incises, elaborating and expanding it into one of Boulez’s most substantial works, scored for three pianos, three harps, and three percussionists.

The performance had all of the precision one would expect from players in the MET Orchestra, and Levine, who deserves far more recognition for his championing of contemporary works, brought a palpably improvisatory character to the transformation of the musical material – chords becoming arpeggiated figures, sudden scalar passages becoming single or multiple pitches, and dense unison gestures exploding and dissipating in the sonic equivalent of a fireworks volley. The loudest passages seemed denser than they had in the composer’s own performance, yet nothing was sacrificed in terms of balance or clarity, whether in the rapid-fire, toccata-like outbursts that pervade the opening section of the work, the shifting melismatic music near the work’s center, or the explosive outbursts at the end, with figures erupting from near-silence and disappearing in a timbrally transformed haze.

While there were a few empty seats in Zankel Hall, this was an audience that clearly appreciates this repertoire, and gave these fine performances prolonged ovations.

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