Friday, June 8, 2018

Another Mälkki Triumph with SFS at Davies

Conductor Susanna Mälkki and violinist Nikolaj Znaider (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki made her debut on the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in April of 2012. Since then she has returned regularly, always preparing a program involving a mix of tradition and adventurous modernism that never fails to fire on all cylinders. Almost exactly a year ago she chose to embed a piano concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven (Opus 15 in C major) between very early music by Igor Stravinsky and the roaring dissonances of that composer’s score for the ballet “The Rite of Spring.” This time around she turned to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky for tradition with his Opus 35 violin concerto in D major featuring Nikolaj Znaider as soloist. For the “adventurous modernism” she turned to Kaija Saariaho’s “Laterna Magica,” giving the piece its first SFS performances. She then concluded the program with an intriguing “midpoint” between these two composers, a performance of Alexander Scriabin’s Opus 54, “The Poem of Ecstasy.”

As I have remarked in the past, Tchaikovsky is one of those composers that tempts too many conductors to “bathe” in the music (invoking the mot juste that music critic Julius Korngold evoked to point out the flaws in compositions by his son Erich Wolfgang), rather than letting Tchaikovsky’s rhetoric speak for itself through his own expressive devices. Davies has witnessed any number of conductors bathing in their performances of Tchaikovsky (not to mention other composers); so I am happy to report that Mälkki is not one of them. Without ever short-changing the rhetoric, she had no trouble capturing the emotional core of each of the concerto’s three movements; and her emotional perspective aligned perfectly with Znaider’s solo work from first note to last. She even balanced her instrumental resources in just the way to suggest that several of the phrases reflected on the “ballet rhetoric” of the recently completed score for the Opus 20 Swan Lake; and both Mälkki and Znaider seemed well aware of when Tchaikovsky was reflecting on folk sources he had known from childhood. In other words this was a Tchaikovsky performance for the attentive listener, rather than those there only for the familiar tunes.

The solidity of Znaider’s technique had much to do with the impact of his partnership with Mälkki. Mälkki may not have overplayed the lush passages, but she definitely knew how to pick up the tempo when she wanted the rhetoric to get intense. Many of her choices threatened that the ride would be a wild one, but Znaider was securely with her every twist and turn through tempo changes. Similarly, his handling of the prodigiously wide pitch range required for the first movement cadenza was given an unquestionably masterful account. This was a performance whose impact could be felt in both the overall sweep of the music and the intricacy of the many details in the score.

The audience would not let Znaider get away without taking an encore. He suggested that only Johann Sebastian Bach would be appropriate and then observed that, after all of the D major in the Tchaikovsky concerto, a shift to D minor seemed desirable. As a result he played the Sarabande movement from the BWV 1004 solo partita. Once again he knew just how to fit his expressiveness to the music itself, shaping his performance around the three-beat metrical foundation and even conveying some sense of the stately dance after which the movement is named.

While the Tchaikovsky concerto owed much to its rich approach to the orchestral resources (particularly the ample number of strings), the resources for the second half of the program went far beyond anything that Tchaikovsky would have imagined, both in terms of the instruments required and the ways in which they were deployed. Over the course of Mälkki’s visits, she has frequently served up performances of music she came to know during her tenure at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, which translates as “institute for research and coordination in acoustics and music”). Director Pierre Boulez had a great interest in investigating new sonorities created through either technology or innovative approaches to working with conventional instruments.

The most theoretical of the composers active at IRCAM were sometimes known as the “spectralists.” These composers, particularly Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, took a great interest in how any sound amounted to a balanced combination of elementary sine waves at different frequencies and amplitudes. In some ways they were the leading edge of a generation that followed up on early efforts by Karlheinz Stockhausen to make electronic music with nothing other than sine tones. Rather than working with such elementary tone generators, however, Grisey and Murail sought to do their synthesis by getting the right combinations of instruments to match the frequency spectra of the sounds they wished to synthesize.

As might be guessed, the idea worked better in theory than in practice. However, the practice was motivated by a tradition that was far older than IRCAM. The third (“Farben”) of the five orchestral pieces in Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 16 was intended as an example of what the composer called “chord-colors.” The idea was that the piece would consist of a single chord whose instrumentation would be subjected to a fluid series of changes. In other words the entire piece was based on changes in sonority, rather than harmonic progressions or webs of polyphony.

Needless to say, this piece has been a challenge for conductors for over a century. (In my own listening experience, I would have to say that Simon Rattle has come closest to achieving in performance what Schoenberg intended.) If that little exercise posed enormous problems, one can appreciate the challenges of the ideas and resulting music that came out of IRCAM. From this point of view, “Laterna Magica” is a twenty-minute effort to pursue the same sort of goal that Schoenberg had first imagined.

That extension of duration by an order of magnitude poses a challenge to even the most sympathetic listener. On “first exposure” one can clearly grasp that Schoenberg’s intention to depart from the traditions of both harmony and polyphony are being honored. Nevertheless, when it comes to how they have been honored and how those changes impact the listening experience, “Laterna Magica” is simply not music that can be adequately apprehended right out of the gate. Something is clearly cooking in Saariaho’s pot and the aroma is definitely intriguing; but, as is the case with much of the finest cuisine, the taste buds need some time to orient themselves.

It is reasonable to assume that, given her IRCAM connection, Mälkki knew how to deploy the SFS resources in the best interest of Saariaho’s score. For that matter, her attentiveness allowed one to appreciate, at least on a moment-by-moment analysis, how Saariaho had taken Schoenberg’s original vision to the next level. Sustaining those moments across a duration of twenty minutes, on the other hand, was another matter. This is music that can only begin to be apprehended over the course of the familiarity acquired through several exposures. This was one of those cases where it really would have been nice to consult a commercial recording before experiencing an in-the-moment performance. I would be willing to bet that this is one of those pieces for which the listening experience becomes richer as one encounters the music more often.

The same can probably be said of Scriabin’s Opus 54, which also has a duration of about twenty uninterrupted minutes. Those who happened to have attended pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk’s Chamber Music San Francisco recital last month would probably have been at an advantage. Gavrylyuk played Scriabin’s Opus 53 (fifth) piano sonata, the first of his ten published sonatas to be written without a key specification. This piece was written in 1907 (which places it two years before Schoenberg’s Opus 16). It consists of a single movement lasting about ten minutes, over the course of which one never encounters a perfect dominant-tonic cadence.

Scriabin was working on Opus 54 at the same time, having begun it in 1905 but only completed it in the spring of 1907. Like Opus 53, Opus 54 revels in harmonic ambiguity, allowing a small number of motifs to play out across a diversity of contexts, all rich with chords that never seem to advance what would amount to a harmonic progression. Because Opus 54 lasts about twice as long as Opus 53, the piano sonata offers much to orient the attentive listener to the organizational problems with which Scriabin was grappling.

In the absence of the sonata as context, one can still appreciate the extent to which Scriabin relied on his use of instrumental resources as a means of endowing the piece with some sense of forward progression. It is also probably not a coincidence that some of his instrumental gestures can also be found in Stravinsky’s score for “The Firebird,” which would not receive its first performance until 1910. Nevertheless, because the motivic repertoire is relatively limited (particularly in comparison with the expanse of the instrumentation), the subjective duration of Opus 54 tends to feel far longer than that of Opus 53 than it actually is in terms of clock-time.

Thus, as was the case with the Saariaho composition, Scriabin’s Opus 54 is one of those pieces in which those “musical taste buds” need to orient themselves. The difference, of course, is that Opus 54 has been around for more than a century. For all the ways in which music has advanced the ways in which we think about “how time passes,” Opus 54 tends to be as problematic as it was 100 years ago. Nevertheless, Mälkki certainly did an excellent job of mustering SFS resources to give a proper account of all the marks that Scriabin had committed to his score pages. If the overall experience was a bit on the long side, the intensity of the final climax (featuring the only major triad in the piece) could not have been more exciting. Mälkki clearly understands that final impressions are the most lasting, and she made sure that those impressions registered with the entire audience.

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