New York Philharmonic/Maazel, Perlman, and a Henze Premiere

Sebastian im Traum [U.S. premiere]
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Rapsodie espagnole
The Firebird – 1919 Suite

Itzhak Perlman (violin)

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 14 September, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

One night after the New York Philharmonic’s nationally televised opening night gala, the orchestra launched its regular subscription season with a concert featuring three colourful and rhythmically exciting orchestral works – one brand new and two quite familiar – and a romantic violin concerto played with warmth and virtuosity by Itzhak Perlman. This was the first of four performances.

The concert opened with the U.S. premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s Sebastian im Traum (Dream of Sebastian), a work co-commissioned by the Philharmonic, the Eduard van Beinum Stichting, the Tonhalle-Gesellschaft (Zürich) and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which gave the world premiere performance last December conducted by Mariss Jansons (a recording made at the time is on RCO Live RCO 06001 in company with Mahler’s Sixth Symphony). The work’s subtitle translates to ‘Salzburg Night-Music on a poem by Georg Trakl’, and although it is played continuously (for about 15 minutes) it is divided into three movements that correspond to the three sections of Trakl’s poem.

Sebastian im Traum is scored for a large orchestra: an oversized wind section that includes cor anglais and four horns; a brass section with three trumpets, three trombones, alto trombone and tuba; timpani and an extensive percussion section with bass drum, cymbals, four tam-tams, snare drum, vibraphone, crotales (antique cymbals), three suspended cymbals, three tom-toms, wood block, metal block, temple block, castanets, and chimes (described in the score as evening bells); two harps, piano, celesta and strings.

Henze makes extensive use of all of the instruments in his orchestra, giving doubling players a great deal to do throughout the piece on piccolo, alto flute, bass clarinet and contrabassoon. He also exploits the full range of capabilities of each instrument, frequently calling upon both string and brass players to mute their instruments, and at one point asking the brass to remove the mutes gradually. Both flutes and trumpets are directed to employ flutter-tonguing, and the strings are sometimes instructed to bow sul ponticello (near the bridge) and at other times sul tasto (over the fingerboard). Six different types of mallets for the percussion are specified in the score. The result is a most unusual array of sound colours, which Henze combines in many different, and often unconventional, ways.

The work has much rhythmic interest, changing meter very frequently. For example, in the opening ten bars, the meter changes with every measure. Tempos are varied rather less frequently within each movement, but do change from one movement to the next. The music is tonally ambiguous, having no key – it is scored entirely in C with accidentals supplied note-by-note – yet is not completely atonal, with some portions being quite conventionally melodic and others sounding cacophonous.

Does this complex and highly intellectualized score translate into a piece of solely academic interest that will not be moving and enjoyable in the concert hall? Not at all! Lorin Maazel’s taut conducting and the orchestra’s brilliant realization of the rich and varied tonal colours of Henze’s score successfully evoked the nocturnal, autumnal and sepulchral images of the Salzburg landscape in Trakl’s poem.

Henze establishes a dark palette in the work’s opening bars, which feature the lowest instruments of the orchestra – muted double basses, muted cellos, bass drum, bassoon and contrabassoon. These were soon joined by the other strings (also muted) and woodwinds, and then by the horns, supported first by the tuba and double basses and then bassoons. Such dark combinations recurred at many points in the score, including a passage not much further along in the first movement in which the basses, cellos and contrabassoon were joined by two trombones and bass clarinet. These bass tones corresponded appropriately to the Trakl poem’s images of shade, darkness and death.

Another thematic element is Henze’s use of percussive interludes. Near the beginning of the piece, the chatter of woodwinds, strings, harps, piano and celesta is interrupted by the snare drum, vibraphone, crotales and cymbals (along with trilling trumpets), leading to a sudden silence. In an even more dramatic first movement passage, cymbals followed by three tom-toms and then four tam-tams reflect the poem’s text (“When in demented rage he hurled himself on the ground”). Finally, evening bells chimed pp as the movement came to a close. In the second movement, one extended percussion passage combined snare drum, bass drum and tam-tams to provide a soft underpinning to a flute and viola duet, and a second featured alternating wood blocks and metal blocks ff, leading to yet another passage for basses, cellos, contrabassoon, bassoons and bass clarinet. Near the movement’s end, temple blocks, castanets, vibraphone, bass drum, cymbals and tam-tam played in overlapping configurations, and the evening bells were heard again in the concluding bars. In the brief final movement, the percussion play a lesser role, emerging in its waning moments with an outburst of tam-tams, tom-toms, and bass drum and cymbals, with the bass drum capping off the sudden ff final chord.

The mood of the piece is not altogether gloomy. A first movement episode ushered in by the low strings, clarinets and flutes and featuring an English horn solo accompanied by muted violins and violas evoked tender feelings, and at various points the piccolo, flutes and celesta imitated birdsong, corresponding to such references in the Trakl poem. The most nearly genial portion of the work comes at the beginning of the final movement, which opened with an extended passage for muted strings, taken at a slower tempo than any in the first two movements. Even as the woodwinds and then the horns joined the strings, the atmosphere did not become despairing, although a sense of agitation increased until the final entrance of the percussion that heralded the work’s conclusion.

Maazel and the Philharmonic cannot be praised too highly for their skilful and exciting performance of this interesting and engaging new work.

Itzhak Perlman is perhaps the most prominent heir to the ‘Russian School’ violin tradition. He, like such great violinists as Mischa Elman, Nathan Milstein, Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh and Isaac Stern, can trace his tutelage back to Leopold Auer and his disciples. His performance of Max Bruch’s ubiquitous concerto (there are two others!) was very much in that style, combining a lush, glowing sound with impeccable technical prowess. Whenever Perlman was playing, Maazel kept the orchestra well in the background but paid careful attention to subtle details, bringing the ensemble strongly to the fore in the first movement ‘prelude’ and intermittent tutti sections. The Adagio was performed with tenderness, and in the finale Perlman played the stirring initial theme with captivating gusto, alternating with the more romantic and lyrical second subject. The audience, which had greeted Perlman warmly, gave him an even more effusive standing ovation at the concerto’s end.

The second half of the programme consisted of spectacular performances of two often-played staples of the concert repertory.

Ravel is widely regarded as a master of orchestration, and the Rapsodie espagnole was the first of many works that he originally composed for piano (in this case for four hands) and later arranged for orchestra. His effort was wildly successful, taking full advantage of the full range of orchestral colours to capture the spirit of each of the work’s four movements. Maazel led the Philharmonic’s musicians, who were in brilliant form, in a performance that did full justice to Ravel’s evocation of the rhythms and colours of Spain.

The opening ‘Prélude à la nuit’ began with the strings playing a falling, four-note ostinato that was interrupted by a sparkling ascending figure on the strings and harp, then by brief interludes for the clarinets, the first-chair string players, and later the bassoons, finally ending quietly on the harp and celesta. The brief but rhythmically striking ‘Malagueña’ harkened back to the opening ostinato and featured a dreamy English horn solo. In the third movement, the harp, strings and percussion maintained the syncopated ‘Habanera’ rhythm with the winds and brass playing a lesser role, but then taking on greater prominence in the concluding ‘Feria’. Both the solo and ensemble playing was letter-perfect and idiomatic, and Maazel’s reading brought rhythmic and dynamic excitement to every part of the work, building in stages to an especially powerful final climax.

The 1919 Suite from Stravinsky’s ballet L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird) is another concert war-horse, but it sounded anything but old-hat as played by Maazel and the Philharmonic. The ominous introduction was sonorously played by the lower strings, winds and brass, with the appearance of the firebird portrayed by the violins’ harmonic glissandi. The flute, after chattering with the piccolo over the strings in the ‘Firebird’s Dance and Variation’, introduced the ‘Princesses’ Round Dance’, with beautifully played solos by each of the principal wind players and principal cellist Carter Brey. The dance of King Kashchei sounded truly ‘Infernal’, its opening chord coming – despite the familiarity of this work – with a suddenness nearly as surprising as the final chord of Henze’s composition earlier in the evening. This movement stood out both in excellence of playing, especially by the brass section, and in the excitement Maazel generated by his dynamic and rhythmic choices, culminating in an accelerando to two final chords. But even before those chords could die away Maazel began the ‘Lullaby’, thus making the change of mood as sudden as at the beginning of the raucous ‘Infernal Dance’.

In the ‘Lullaby’, the harp and strings were prominent, accompanying principal bassoonist Judith LeClair’s beautifully played solo. As the movement neared its end, tension built with string tremolos until the horn announced the majestic theme of the ‘Finale’. The violins then took up the theme, accompanied by flute, harp glissandi, and tremolos in the lower strings, building up to a mid-movement tutti with the brass ushered in by a bass drum roll, ending in sudden silence in the midst of an unresolved cadence. Some urgent violin figures then led to brass fanfares and irregular bass drum beats, with the entire orchestra finally joining in to bring the work to a powerful and thrilling close.

Although Avery Fisher Hall has been returned to its usual configuration following August’s “Mostly Mozart” season, it seemed to have a brighter and clearer sound than in seasons past. As there has been no announcement of any tinkering with the hall’s acoustics, the excellent sound presumably must be credited to the brilliance of the performances.

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