Friday, May 7, 2010

A Double Birthday Day

With all the attention to this being the "double bicentennial" year of the 200th anniversary of the births of both Robert Schumann and Frédéric Chopin, it is worth remembering that today is the birthday of two of the best remembered composers of the nineteenth century. Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg on May 7, 1833; and, exactly seven years later, Pyotr Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840 in Votkinsk, a remote industrial town that lacked the musical legacy that Hamburg had established, going back at least to the arrival of Georg Philipp Telemann in 1720. When we consider the works of these two composers, we would probably feel that they had little in common; but, at the risk of sounding too contentious, I realized, while listening to the XM Symphony Hall channel celebrate the day, that there is one thing they share. They are both victims of performances that egregiously represent them; and (this is the particularly contentious part) many of those performances were the work of Leonard Bernstein.

I make this claim on the basis of personal listening experience of not only Bernstein but of conductors that expanded my capacity for listening to both of these composers. Bernstein's egocentric displays on the podium are now legendary. He may deserve credit for awakening the interest of American audiences to the music of Gustav Mahler and Charles Ives; but, when it came to more familiar repertoire, it too often seemed the case that the work being performed was reduced to a backdrop for the display of his depth of empathy, which, on closer inspection, often turned out to be a very thin patina. The video document of his Tanglewood performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra of Tchaikovsky's fifth E minor symphony, Opus 64, makes this case in the most painfully vivid terms. Tchaikovsky may have intended an intense level of emotional expression in this symphony, but I have never believed that a conductor can effectively convey that intensity by wallowing in it.

Where Brahms is concerned, much has been made of the period that Bernstein spent toward the end of his life making recordings of the Brahms repertoire with the Vienna Philharmonic. The Symphony Hall production team seems to have a great love of these recordings, and I always seem to be able to identify them when I happen to tune in on one in midstream. I am not sure I would describe any of these performances as wallowing, simply because Brahms' scores never tend to push one to such extremes; but I always seem to catch the Bernstein signature of overwrought passages that are drawn out at a tempo that is more than a shade too slow and executed with dynamics that are exaggerated. This morning I happened to be listening to the Opus 90 third symphony, which, in spite of its F major key, I have always found to be the most tragic of the four symphonies with its conclusion that reflects back on its energetic opening now reduced to a shadow of its initial self. One has only to look at the score to see that Brahms had already determined how expressive this symphony can be, and he did not need any of his gestures to be further underscored by any conductor.

The good news is that one does not have to look far to find conductors, both past and present, who knew how to put out the necessary effort to do justice to both Brahms and Tchaikovsky. I have always been particularly impressed that, when Sergiu Celibidache, who never seemed to be able to find a kind word to say about Bernstein, finally authorized the recording of his performances, during his years with the Münchner Philharmoniker, Brahms was the composer receiving the most attention. The EMI Classics releases cover all four symphonies, the Opus 56 orchestral version of the Haydn variation, and the Opus 45 Deutsches Requiem. All recordings were made from live performances; and these "virtual concert experiences" remain some of the best ways in which the serious listener can come to appreciate much of the logic, grammar, and rhetoric that make Brahms' music communicate as effectively as it does.

For Tchaikovsky, my current preference tends towards Valery Gergiev. This opinion was shaped heavily by the except of one of his rehearsal sessions for Eugene Onegin at the Metropolitan Opera that was included at the end of the PBS broadcast of this performance. Much of his time was spent emphasizing that, while there is a tendency to think of Tchaikovsky as repetitious, one can find considerable variation just by following the expressive markings in the score itself. There is no denying that the man has a strong ego; and it has not escaped my attention that, in video recordings of ballet and opera, he tends to be the focus of camera attention when there is no action up on stage. However, I have yet to be dissatisfied with his approach to Tchaikovsky; and the listening experience usually takes me down paths I had not previously noticed.

So, having gotten my "Bernstein tsuris" off my chest, I would say that this is a good day for all serious listeners to attend to both Brahms and Tchaikovsky. They both deserve the attention. If you do not have the opportunity to enjoy a performance by at least one of these composers, there are any number of recorded documents that give them all the justice that they both deserve.

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