Soprano Susanna Phillips (photograph by Zachary Maxwell, from her IMG Artists Web site)
This season the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) decided to celebrate the Thanksgiving weekend with a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 125 (“Choral”) symphony in D minor. However, last night at Davies Symphony Hall, what made the occasion “worth the price of admission” (as P. T. Barnum would have put it) was the “overture” selection made by Music Director and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) to precede the symphony. This was the orchestra version of what Alban Berg published under the title Seven Early Songs, performed by soprano Susanna Phillips, who would return as one of the Beethoven soloists.
As we could read in the program notes by the late Michael Steinberg, Berg composed 86 songs for voice and piano between 1900 (when he was fifteen years old) and 1908. Since he became a student of Arnold Schoenberg in October of 1904, it would be reasonable to assume that Schoenberg’s influence can be found in about half of those songs. Three of them would be the first of Berg’s compositional efforts to be performed in public. However, it would not be until 1928 that Berg would revise those three songs, along with four others, and have them published under the title Seven Early Songs, set for medium voice and piano. At the same time Berg worked on a version for high voice and orchestra, also completed in 1928 but not published until 1969.
One might thus call these songs a mature reflection on a youthful effort. Indeed, the very idea of an orchestral version probably grew out of the rich insights into instrumental color that had surfaced in Berg’s Wozzeck opera, which was first performed in 1925. Wozzeck is, in many ways, pivotal in Berg’s life. The Opus 6 set of three pieces for orchestra, composed in 1915, may be viewed as a “warm-up” exercise preceding his work on that opera. So there is a certain symmetry in the many passages in the orchestral version of the Early Songs that seem to reverberate with sonorities that can be traced back to Wozzeck.
MTT last performed these orchestral songs in May of 2009 as part of a Festival of parallel explorations of the music of Berg and Franz Schubert. Last night’s account was just as perceptive and loving as the one from the last decade. Much of that perception had to do with MTT’s detailed approach to balancing the instrumental resources, making sure that every sonority was established both in its own right and through its blend with other sonorities. (For the most part every instrumental line in the score, including those for percussion, benefits from understatement.)
For her part Phillips could not have been a more satisfying vocalist. Her sense of pitch was impeccable, allowing her free rein to establish the position of her own sonorities among Berg’s instrumental resources. She also seemed to appreciate the extent to which each of the seven songs amounted to a miniaturist interpretation of a relatively brief poem. The texts were not as abbreviated as those of a haiku; but, through Phillips’ interpretation, one could appreciate each song as a passing moment, which seemed to reverberate in memory immediately after it concluded. Most important, however, was how Phillips worked with MTT to bring sheer transparency to music that, under less secure hands, could have been a muddle of overly-thick textures.
Nothing could have been more different than the Beethoven symphony that followed. For better or worse, this is music that has “masterpiece” written all over it in a twenty-point bold font. There certainly was no shortage of glorious moments, many of which involved the vigorously celebratory rhetoric from the SFS Chorus prepared by Ragnar Bohlin. The solo vocal work, on the other hand, has to jump through any number of flaming hoops that tend to challenge the listener as much as the singer. Bass-baritone Davóne Tines and tenor Nicholas Phan had the advantage of extended solo work. Both rose to the occasion. In Phan’s case that was a literal rising, summoning full strength to give a solid account of the very top of his register. Phillips and mezzo Kelley O’Connor, on the other hand, were there to add texture to the vocal quartet writing, a tangled complex of counterpoint at its most adventurous.
Nevertheless, it seemed as if MTT was not at the top of his game when it came to managing the overall landscape of the music’s climaxes. He was already over the top at the recapitulation section of the first movement, allowing little room to build up further intensity in the final movement. Thus, once the vocal passages got under way, there was no shortage of vigor but little sense that the music was ascending to a coda that, by all rights, should have been the “highest peak” of the evening.
Still, if MTT’s approach to Beethoven was short-changed by the efforts he had put into his Berg interpretation, I, for one, was perfectly happy with Berg coming out ahead.