New York Philharmonic/Maazel [Monaco Fanfares, Farewells & Sibelius 2]

Monaco Fanfares, Op.8
Farewells: Symphonic Movement, Op.14
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: Andrew Farach-Colton

Reviewed: 18 June, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Lorin Maazel. Photograph: Silvia LelliFor his penultimate program as music director of the New York Philharmonic (presented in a set of three subscription concerts), Lorin Maazel coupled two of his own compositions with one of his signature pieces, Sibelius’s Second Symphony.

Monaco Fanfares (1986) was written when Maazel lived in Monte Carlo, directly opposite from the royal palace, and becoming increasingly annoyed by the fanfares that accompanied the daily changing of the guard. “It struck me as being a compositional challenge to write a piece of interest in one key without ever changing it”, he explains. The solution Maazel came up with was to present a series of disparate ideas – including snare-drum rolls, triadic trumpet fanfares, an exotic-sounding saxophone melody and ringing bells – which are then layered in different combinations and densities. It’s not the most arresting concert-opener, and it seems conspicuously lacking in humour, but, at five minutes, it did not outstay its welcome.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Farewells (1999), which Maazel has described as “at once a mirror of the obtuseness of human nature and the inhuman crunching of the machines of our invention, and a melancholy evocation of the tenderness we can still find within the souls of those not yet desensitized by the din of the present-day human arena.” In this grim, 25-minute or so “symphonic movement”, Maazel regurgitates several decades’ worth of modernist clichés: hammer-blow chords, hazy clouds of strings, low brass growls and screaming woodwind. Quiet passages are so continually interrupted by sudden sonic explosions that their unpredictability becomes, in the end, dully predictable. And there was precious little structure to grasp onto, as one section lurched into the next.

Clearly, Farewells was intended to be nightmarish – an apocalyptic vision of our future. But Maazel’s musical ideas are simply not striking enough, or wielded with sufficient eloquence, to make their point. At the work’s deafening climax, for example, the sounds of wailing sirens and police-whistles accompany a gargantuan orchestral shriek. As it came crashing down, many members of the audience laughed, though it wasn’t the nervous laughter caused by uncomfortability (the effect Maazel surely wanted). Rather, they laughed because the gesture was so obviously and gratuitously melodramatic.

Curiously, Maazel conducted his own music with the scores, but he led Sibelius’s Second Symphony from memory. If only he had used a score for this as well, and followed the composer’s instructions more closely. The opening movement was particularly disturbing in this regard. Maazel fussed over the phrasing and exaggerated every ritardando and accelerando, which robbed the music of its natural momentum and made the movement appear episodic and shapeless.

The conductor’s brisk tempo for the slow movement created an unexpected sense of nervousness, an effect that shone a fresh light on the music’s character. But, still there were considerable frustrations. Many of the tempo transitions were awkwardly handled, the copious dramatic pauses came across as mere silences, and some of the grander rhetorical gestures became so grandiose as to lose their essential nobility.

It must be said that the New York Philharmonic gave Maazel its all throughout, fulfilling his concept of Sibelius’s work with utter conviction and, at times, breathtaking brilliance. The main section of the Vivacissimo third movement, for instance, was a wonder. You could hear every fast-moving strand of melody, and the complex parts were artfully dovetailed together. But the slower trio sections were spoiled by a heavy, overtly calculated application of rubato. Instead of lyrical purity, Maazel gave us outsize dollops of schmaltz.

The finale came off best. Again, there were some clumsy transitions; Maazel seemed to want to alter the music’s punctuation, putting paragraph breaks where there should have been periods, and semicolons where commas belonged. Still, there was considerably less fussing, and the coda, in which Maazel adhered staunchly to a propulsive yet dignified tempo, was truly stirring.

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