Sunday, December 7, 2008

Little Rhyme, No Reason

I have to confess that I have become conditioned to expect that the entire program for a musical performance has been assembled with some sort of logic in mind. That logic may be a common theme, an effort to highlight contrasts, or a chronological sequence of samples that suggest the course of music history. Whatever the reasoning may be, there is something reassuring about the idea of an entire concert being a journey; so, as you leave the hall at the end of that journey, you can review the experience in your mind and reflect on how you have progressed.

Alas, no such logic seemed to be present in last night's San Francisco Symphony performance at Davies Symphony Hall. The motivation seemed to be one of showcasing pianist Lang Lang, and there is no doubt that he turned out an enthusiastic audience. He was coupled with guest conductor Mark Wigglesworth, who had no trouble letting Lang call the shots for the performance of Frédéric Chopin's first (Opus 11) piano concerto in E minor. The problem involved what to do with the rest of the program, and the decision was made to couple Chopin with Richard Wagner, represented by orchestral excerpts from Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The evening was structured with Wagner before the intermission and Chopin concluding the evening.

The good news is that the Wagner portion provided excellent opportunities to sample Wigglesworth's conducting skills. This was more than apparent from the very beginning, the usual Tannhäuser offering of the overture and Venusberg ballet music. In terms of Wagner's progress in honing his craft, this is very early stuff; and there are few signs of the sophisticated logic that would eventually bring us to such amazing accomplishments as Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde. Still, this is a good introduction to Wagner's rhetorical command of the "grand sound," even if he had not yet acquired the finer arts of restraint. Since this was a strictly orchestral performance, we were spared the ironic twist that the first words out of Tannhäuser's mouth are "Zu viel!" ("Too much!"). Nevertheless, Wigglesworth compensated for Wagner's lapses of excess with a keen sense of instrumental balance through which he could pace the transition from the reverential piety of Holy Land pilgrims to the orgiastic revels of the "pilgrims of Venus." The result was a good way to warm up the audience and prime their attention.

This would then raise the question, "Warm up for what?" Well, as far as the first half of the evening was concerned, the answer was to "warm up for" the more mature Wagner of Meistersinger. To return to the journey metaphor, Meistersinger is such a personal piece of work that it deserved some contextual understanding of what Wagner had been doing that eventually led him to this point. By beginning the excerpts with the third act prelude, Wigglesworth had (made?) the opportunity to couple the hymn of the Tannhäuser pilgrims with the orchestral setting of the hymn sung by everyone in Nürnberg (or so it seems) to begin the annual celebration of Saint John's Day. (In both cases the orchestral version will later blossom into a far grander choral setting.) However, while the former is a relatively straightforward four-square affair with a clean sense of closure, the latter is an excursion unto itself, which, in the prelude, is seamlessly woven in among the other themes (dramatic, as well as musical) that surface in the final (and most complex) act of this opera. The flamboyant rhetoric has become more reflective; so, if we are to continue the parallel, the self-indulgent sensuality of Venusberg has now been succeeded by the Mastersingers themselves, whose very presence attenuated a smooth segue from the Act III procession to the first act prelude. The overall "journey through Wagner" may not have made us all "master listeners;" but, under Wigglesworth's guidance, our ears were escorted to regions we may not have previously known.

Where did that leave us after the intermission? Given that Chopin's concerto predates Tannhäuser by about fifteen years, we were certainly not about to continue the journey we had begun. Furthermore, the work is relatively early and not particularly representative of the composer's present or future skills. Extended forms were never his strong suit, nor was orchestral writing. He is best appreciated for the many ways he could apply a basic ternary form to solo piano writing. A pianist like Arthur Rubinstein, who not only commanded pretty much the entire Chopin canon but also kept coming up with new readings of the works in that canon, could mine his experience to give this concerto the convincing performance it deserves; but Lang seemed more interested in showmanship than understanding. There was almost a choreographed plan to all of his physical gestures of attentiveness during the orchestral sections, and it seemed as if more effort went into those physical gestures than into the musical gestures in the score. The result was a highly skilful act of audience manipulation based on nothing more than the compelling personality of the soloist.

I am sure there are many who would disagree with my perspectives on both Wagner and Chopin. There are those for whom Chopin was a pinnacle of refinement, condemned to be followed in music history by decades of Wagnerian vulgarity. Unfortunately, any sense of that refinement was in short (if any) supply in Lang's performance of Chopin. Indeed, all that physical showmanship did little other than push Chopin over the brink into vulgarity, leaving us thankful that Wigglesworth was perceptive enough to bring out all those elements of refinement in Wagner.


Anonymous said...

for what it's worth, it was the paris version of tanhauser, which was rewritten after tristan and isolde.

As you would notice by the giant tristan-like delayed resolution in the middle of the piece.

Stephen Smoliar said...

Yes, I should probably have made that clearer. There are a variety of stylistic differences between the overture and the Paris Venusberg ballet. The "aroma" of Tristan is probably the most obvious of them. (There is, of course, also the explanation that the ballet goes on as long as it does under the assumption that Paris wanted it that way.)