Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Younger Strauss

It was only coincidence that the Metropolitan HD telecast of Salome in the morning (Pacific time) was followed in the evening at Davies Symphony Hall by one of Richard Strauss' earliest works, his "Burleske" for piano and orchestra. Emanuel Ax was soloist with Peter Oundjian conducting the San Francisco Symphony. This is pretty much the only opportunity we have to hear Strauss composing for piano orchestra, and this work is almost a double concerto movement for piano and timpani. Come to think of it, for all of his later resourcefulness with percussion in his orchestration, this is pretty much his only effort at using the timpani in a melodic manner.
I think this was only my second opportunity to hear the "Burleske" in concert; and the first was a telecast of a European concert that I had the good fortune to see while in Singapore (but have no memory of the performers, alas). In many ways this short work provides an introduction to Strauss finding his voice. The piano figures are highly virtuosic but tend to draw upon familiar idioms with more than a hint of Johannes Brahms in the overall flavor. The innovation, for the most part, reside in the use of the timpani, which is the real show-stealer. Ax took a good-natured approach to the work and turned his solo into witty exchanges with both the timpani and the rest of the orchestral ensemble. Among all of these good spirits, the seasoned ear will also catch the first seeds of the voice of the more mature Strauss, particularly in the form of gestures that would return in Der Rosenkavalier in an entirely different light. (The is also one quieter gesture that may have suffered the fate of appropriation by Leonard Bernstein.) Because it tells us so much about Strauss in his youth and the direction he is facing towards maturity, this is a work that deserves to be heard more often.
Ax also performed the solo part of Karol Szymanowski's "Symphonie Concertante" for piano and orchestra, also classified as his fourth symphony. Szymanowski composed this work at 1932 at a time when the musical language of the first half of the twentieth century was beginning to converge on a variety of relatively consistent voices. Those voices are most evident in the solo piano work, while the "symphony side" takes a variety of innovative approaches with regard to both form and orchestral voicing. The primary influences on the piano solo involve the emergence of a more percussive approach (thus making the pairing with the Strauss "Burleske" an appropriate one). We can thus assume that Szymanowski was familiar with at least some of the piano compositions of Béla Bartók and, as James Keller suggested in his program notes, at least one of the piano concertos of Sergei Prokofiev. Keller also heard an evocation of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (from his Hollywood years) in the final rondo; but I was less convinced. Ultimately, Szymanowski engaged the idioms of his time with his own voice; and, since the work was dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein, we have the opportunity to become more familiar with it through the recording that Rubinstein made with Alfred Wallenstein and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The "bookends" for Ax's solo work consisted of opening with the overture to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Magic Flute and closing with Pyotr Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini—Fantasy after Dante." The former was light and energetic, providing a nice match for the wit of the Strauss "Burleske." The latter was ponderous by being excessively repetitive. Now we all know that, on just about any scale, Tchaikovsky had a tendency to go overboard with repetition; but those of us who saw the PBS clip of Valery Gergiev rehearsing the Met Orchestra in the opening of Eugene Onegin know that, if you get down with the Devil in the details, Tchaikovsky had a lot of clues as to how to keep those repetitions from sounding repetitive. So it may well be that Oundjian lacked either the time or the inclination to endow this "Francesca" with a feeling of progress, rather than one of iteration. He could always fall back on the mighty noise that Tchaikovsky elicits from his orchestra, ultimately a richer sound than the one Franz Liszt had elicited for his rendition of this tale from the Second Circle of the Inferno in his "Dante Symphony." On sound alone this stood as the sort of rousing climax that would bring the audience to its feet to cheer, which is what they did.

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