New York Philharmonic/Neeme Järvi – Beethoven, Mozart & Zemlinsky

The Creatures of Prometheus, Op.43 – Overture
Symphony No.38 in D, K504 (Prague)
Lyric Symphony in Seven Songs after Poems of Rabindranath Tagore, Op.18

Hillevi Martinpelto (soprano) & Thomas Hampson (baritone)

New York Philharmonic
Neeme Järvi

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 5 November, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Neeme Järvi. ©Järvi ArchivesVladimir Jurowski, chief conductor of the London Philharmonic, was originally scheduled to conduct this week’s New York Philharmonic subscription concerts. Late last week, a glimpse at the schedule revealed that Neeme Järvi was replacing Jurowski in a program that would juxtapose two works of the classical era on the first half (the Beethoven replacing the American premiere of Towards Osiris, by Matthias Pintscher) with an outsize twentieth-century symphonic song-cycle.

The concert opened with the overture to ‘Die Geschöpfer des Figaros’ or was it ‘Il barbiere di Prometeo’? Neeme Järvi’s approach to Beethoven’s Overture to his only ballet score, The Creatures of Prometheus, was distinctly un-Beethovenian – it sounded more like a Mozart comic-opera overture, and a fellow attendee was reminded of Rossini. There was not much in the way of dynamic or timbral contrast; Beethoven’s signature dissonance lacked bite, and the overall sound was a degree or two too legato and inconsistent in tempo – the latter an anomaly that was also conspicuous in the outer movements of the Mozart.

On the other hand, Järvi highlighted the striking dissonance in the second theme of that symphony’s middle Andante movement in a manner that foreshadows Beethoven; he also adopted a surprisingly brisk tempo in this movement that conjured a graceful dance atmosphere. The first movement was not quite as successful, with dull, blunted rhythmic accents and a few uncharacteristic moments of tentative string ensemble. The finale, on the other hand, was full of playful spirit – perhaps a bit too much, as the winds rushed the counter-figure in the second theme.

In a letter written shortly before the premiere of Alexander Zemlinsky’s “Lyric Symphony”, he compared the work to Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”. And while the work is similarly an orchestral song-cycle with two voices, the work bears more in common with Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder” than Mahler’s late masterpiece: it requires a huge orchestra and is thickly scored throughout. The work is unrelenting and overwhelming in its density; multiple melodies in counterpoint, often superimposed over chromatic harmonies, leave little room for respite, pressing constantly forward but seldom leaving any space for musical breath. The cycle sets seven poems on themes of love by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore; Zemlinsky’s hyper-emotional settings are arguably one of the great aesthetic mismatches in twentieth-century repertoire.

Thomas Hampson. ©Petra SpiolaJärvi nevertheless kept the music on a tight rein, yielding better overall balances than I have heard in any recording of the work, and throwing welcome momentum behind some of the most turgid material. The orchestral performance did come up a little short in the area of dynamics — pianissimos were too loud, and most of the climaxes in the first movement didn’t hit a strong enough degree of intensity – but did shine in the area of orchestral colors and small touches, particularly the brass and winds. Thomas Hampson staked out evocative and expressive ground in his approach to these songs, bringing welcome cohesion to the often rambling and overwhelming musical accompaniment. Hampson sounded somewhat strained in the frequent high range of the songs, but succeeded in not only maintaining but also punctuating the songs’ inner drama. And while Hampson was able to be heard over the orchestra, Hillevi Martinpelto had to struggle, though she did bring playful character to ‘Mutter, der jungen Prinz’ and a sense of restless longing to ‘Vollende denn das letztes Lied’.

While I do admire Zemlinsky’s string quartets and his symphonic poem Die Seejungfrau, his “Lyric Symphony” remains tough-going – though I suspect one would be hard-pressed to hear a performance of it to surpass the level of clarity Järvi and the Philharmonic achieved.

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