I suspect that many of my readers may have been a bit surprised at my recent invocation of the adjective "raucous" in association with Johannes Brahms. Personally, I would have anticipated that it would be even harder to associate that adjective with conductor Kurt Masur, whom I have always associated with grace and refinement; but I can think of no better adjective to embrace the program he prepared for his visit to the San Francisco Symphony. Masur made it clear that he could have just as much fun with his work as the next guy without in any way compromising the disciplined technique that his particular work demands. I suppose I should not be surprised, since, in the concert he prepared for the Symphony last year, he had no trouble cutting loose in a wild and wooly reading of Richard Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche;" but last night's concert at Davies Symphony Hall made the Strauss performance seem tame by comparison.
Perhaps Masur thought that he should do something in keeping with the fact that Halloween is just around the corner. This seems to be the best explanation for his opening the concert with Franz Liszt's "Totentanz" with piano soloist Louis Lortie. Larry Rothe's essay in the program book may have opted for covering up this piece as a "guilty pleasure;" but I think Seth Montfort came closer to the mark with his "Liszt in Leather" metaphor, which he invoked earlier this month at the Grand Opening Gala for the Russian River Performing Arts Center and Conservatory. On the surface this is an extended series of variations on two of the phrases from the "Dies Irae" chant in the Liber Usualis; but, once we get beyond any formal association with the text of the Requiem Mass, we are left with one of the best examples of that kick-ass exhibitionism that earned Liszt the reputation (notoriety?) of the ultimate piano virtuoso of the nineteenth century. Of course there was nothing new in those days with taking the simplest fragment of material and pushing it for all it was worth (and then some). Liszt himself must have been intimately acquainted with how Beethoven had inflated Diabelli's trivial little waltz into 33 variations. Only a year after "Totentanz," Brahms would publish his own extended set of variations on a Paganini caprice; and, given Brahms' tendency to invoke the adjective "Lisztich" when talking about excessive bad taste, we have to wonder if hearing "Totentanz" had provoked him into his Paganini project.
None of this should retract from the fact that "Totentanz" offers one of the best occasions for unadulterated riotous fun. It is one of those works that starts loud and (with occasional pauses to catch its breath) keeps getting louder. Lortie was able to summon all of the energy and technique necessary to pull off the stunt with aplomb, and Masur was there with orchestral reinforcement. If the second-chair second violinist, sitting no more than a few yards from Lortie, was having a lot of trouble keeping a straight face through the whole affair, he was far from the only one. When the work finally concluded, I realized that I was not applauding because I had doubled over in uncontrolled fits of laughter. I would take issue with Rothe, though, because I felt absolutely no guilt in the pleasure I derived from this experience!
Perhaps the most important lesson from this experience is that a virtuoso pianist could drive an audience in 1865 as crazy as a rock star can today, and that tradition was already firmly in place when Liszt was making his reputation. "Totentanz" was followed by Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy," which predates it by little more than half a century but is basically a similar take on virtuoso exhibitionism. It begins with an extended solo piano improvisation, although Robert Levin is probably the only pianist who has experimented with recording improvisations of his own in place of what Beethoven ultimately set down for publication. This is followed by a theme-and-variations form in which more and more resources are engaged. In the first phase the resources are orchestral; and, in this case, the orchestra is far more than reinforcing backup for the pianist. Indeed, one of the more intriguing variations is for string quartet, played by the first chairs of the two violin, viola, and cello sections; and another variation has an extended obbligato passage for solo cello that reminds us how much Beethoven must have loved this instrument (as if his five sonatas were not enough of a reminder). Having fully developed the orchestral resources, the work finally lives up to its name, bringing in a full chorus with six solo voices. This was where we finally got to enjoy Mazur's chops, because he had a keen sense of making the entire work an extended crescendo. Thus, as the work finally barreled into its coda, Mazur kept us on the edge of the seat by eliciting slight swells, just to let us know that the build-up was still proceeding.
The "Choral Fantasy" is far from Beethoven at his best. Those who view it as an exercise that would prepare him for his ninth symphony probably have a good point. So listening to it is a bit like reading Stephen Hero after one has begun to get one's mind around Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is good to have both in the historical record, but the latter work still dwarfs the former. Nevertheless, it was clear that Mazur wanted to conduct the work on its own terms, regardless of whether it should have been left on the cutting-room floor. The result was another perfectly-rendered instance of raucous virtuosity, but from a time when the raucous had not quite escalated to the degree that Liszt would achieve.
The intermission was followed by a performance of the cantata that Serge Prokofiev prepared from the music he wrote for the soundtrack of Sergei Eisenstein's film, Alexander Nevsky. I have to confess that I still cannot get enough of this film; and, in the context of my generally cool attitude towards Prokofiev, I feel that the film score may be one of his best pieces of work. This is not due to any particularly outstanding efforts at compositional innovation but for the way in which he worked with a studio orchestra to prepare an effective soundtrack at a time when sound recording was still extremely primitive. Prokofiev recognized that delicacy was just not going to register with the recording process; so he drew heavily on loud brass and, in so doing, managed to develop a broad emotional palette from what would have seemed a limited set of resources. In fairness to Eisenstein, that palette probably owes as much to the visuals as to the music; but my point is that Prokofiev-the-team-player seems to have emerged as more of a "firebrand" than Prokofiev-the-composer.
The cantata, on the other hand, is a radically different piece of work. The orchestral palette is far broader, and Prokofiev works it all with a keen ear. Single instruments and small groups carry just as much weight as the great masses of growling brass (although, of course, it was all that growling that maintained the raucous spirit of the evening). What particularly interested me was the rather sparing use that Prokofiev made of sopranos, relying much more on an alto-tenor-bass mix to achieve dark colors. As to the overall compositional structure, it really helps to know the film. The basic "language" of the score is relatively limited and involves far more repetition than development (as if we had not yet had our fill of extended development in the first half of this concert). Thus, as was the case with that solo cello work by Kaija Saariaho, which I recently heard at the San Francisco Conservatory, the cantata is basically an extended exercise in sonorities and how to listen to them. On these terms Prokofiev provided us with more than ample material to refine our listening skills; and Masur had no trouble eliciting every fleck of color from the orchestra, making sure that each was situated in its proper place and time.