Chief of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra since 1997, Mariss Jansons is moving on to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. The Dutch are in for a treat. Jansons is a first-class conductor, in an age that boasts few. Pittsburgh management is taking its time about appointing a successor, which is smart: Jansons is a hard man to replace; names don’t exactly leap to mind. (But I might note that someone should grab Antonio Pappano, now resident at Covent Garden.)

The PSO took something of a victory lap—or valedictory lap—with Jansons in the form of two concerts at Carnegie Hall. The first offered Beethoven, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky; the second offered a sole work —Mahler’s Symphony No. 7.

The Beethoven on the first night was the Eighth Symphony, that fantastically ebullient thing sandwiched between the elegant Seventh and the shocking, immortal Ninth. Rarely will you find Beethoven more high-spirited or unbuttoned, than in the Eighth. And Jansons and the Pittsburghers played the hell out of it.

Oh, sure, there were some blips—technical blips—here and there. But this was a phenomenally energetic performance, from beginning to end. They played as though grateful to have the opportunity, as though they’d never get a chance to play the Eighth again. Orchestras are supposed to be tired of playing Beethoven symphonies. (These days, they ought to be tired of playing Mahler symphonies, but that’s another story.) However, we should say of Beethoven fatigue what Dr. Johnson said of London fatigue.

The Prokofiev was a concerto, the Piano Concerto No. 2, with Yefim Bronfman as soloist. Bronfman is one of the most satisfying pianists in the world, and he proved himself so again here. The Prokofiev Second is not as well known as the two concertos it rests between: The First is prized for its youthful rambunctiousness; the Third is outright canonical. But Bronfman, Jansons, and the PSO made an excellent case for the Second. It is not immortal Prokofiev, but it is by no means embarrassing.

And, quite interestingly, Bronfman played, as an encore—after this bells-and-whistles Soviet piano concerto—a little Scarlatti esercizio. Brilliant.

This first concert closed with the Firebird Suite, traversed with due panache. The Pittsburghers weren’t tired of this one either. And they did us the favor of reminding us why we loved this music in the first place.

It’s not every night that you hear the Mahler Seventh, despite the ubiquity of Mahler. In fact, the Seventh is probably the least played of the nine symphonies, along with the Eighth. (The Eighth is that called “The Symphony of a Thousand,” because of the Cecil B. DeMille-like forces required for it.) A critic friend of mine, Fred Kirshnit, offered a theory about why the Seventh is relatively seldom played: It’s a happy symphony. Very happy. Conductors, when they show themselves in Mahler, like to suffer. They may think there’s something illegitimate, or at least suspect, about Mahler’s happiness, in the Seventh (and about Beethoven’s, in the Eighth!).

I think this may be true. But I also think that the Seventh is somewhat hard to understand, and hard to love at first. I believe you have to grow into it, and that it has to grow on you. (The exception: the shouting, joyous, celebratory last movement, which enters your heart immediately, and doesn’t leave.)

The Seventh, under Mariss Jansons, started with fantastic intensity—the intensity familiar from the Beethoven Eighth. It also brought some remarkably distinguished French-horn playing. One does not expect to hear such playing outside the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonic.

In this first movement, Jansons gave us panoramic Mahler, Mahler in technicolor. And the orchestra was crackling, with everything in place. Of course, Jansons rehearses nearly everything to the nth degree. He is famous, or notorious, for it. In fact, this penchant for thorough rehearsing was one of the things that nixed him for director of the New York Philharmonic. Jansons was in the running, but when he came to guest-conduct, he rehearsed them like the devil. The players took offense. Lorin Maazel came to guest-conduct, too. He canceled a rehearsal, telling them they didn’t need it. They said, “We want Lorin!” (and Lorin got the job). Or so the story goes.

In the Mahler first movement, Jansons was a tight manager of affairs, but he didn’t strangle. Every page felt right. And the intensity was so great, I wondered whether the orchestra could keep it up. But, truth is, this white-knuckle intensity isn’t needed again until the fifth and final movement.

The second movement—Nachtmusik: Allegro moderato—was indeed night-like, spooky. It was also insinuating, on little cat feet. This is a hard movement to get right, even as this entire symphony is a difficult one to conduct. (Perhaps that’s another reason it is so often left alone.) But Jansons had his forces playing easily together. They responded keenly to one another, as much like chamber musicians as like orchestral ones.

The third movement—a scherzo—has a tricky beginning, neatly handled by Jansons, with tight, clean beats. Under this baton, the music was unflagging, and not at all episodic (which it can be). The next movement—Nachtmusik: Andante amoroso—registered simplicity. Simplicity above all. It wasn’t precious, it wasn’t overladen. Mahler, that genius, could be a very simple guy—and good conductors know it.

In the Finale, the intensity came back, with a vengeance. And with that intensity was extreme gaiety, festiveness. I think of a wedding when I hear this music; maybe I think of Mendelssohn’s march, another piece in C major. In certain spots, Jansons very definitely brought out the character of a marching band (yes, a marching band. How Mahler loved them! See, or hear, his Symphony No. 3). This is a difficult movement to play—in a difficult symphony to play—but Jansons let none of that show. The music poured out of him, and out of his orchestra, and when the Seventh ended, triumphantly, the Carnegie Hall audience was on its feet.

I must report feeling oddly sad: I simply knew that I would never hear the Seventh Symphony of Mahler played so well again. Hope I’m wrong. I doubt it.

Michael Tilson Thomas has been chief of the San Francisco Symphony since 1995, and he is not likely to go anywhere anytime soon. By all accounts, they love him in the Bay Area. And surely a good portion of this affection is justified. Tilson Thomas is a capable conductor—sometimes a superb one—even if he can also be an immensly annoying one.

He and his orchestra had two nights in Carnegie Hall, too. The first started with a new transcription of Debussy’s En blanc et noir, a piece for two pianos. You didn’t think En blanc et noir needed an orchestral transcription? Well, the San Francisco Symphony apparently did, because it commissioned one, from Robin Holloway, a composer and scholar. It is a successful one, too. In fact, it sounds like something Debussy might have done, if he had wanted—and you can hardly do better than that.

This concert continued with another SFS commission, My Father Knew Charles Ives, by John Adams. No, Adams’s father didn’t know Charles Ives, but Adams feels a kinship with that earlier American composer, and this three-sectioned work is meant to recall Ives’s Three Places in New England. It is a worthy effort, describing the composer’s own past, and paying tribute—in a way—to America itself.

The program ended with Sheherazade, and it was … how delicately do you want this put? It was far and away the worst— the dullest, the most offensive—account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s hit I have ever heard or will ever hear. It was painfully slow. Stupefyingly slow. And did I say it was dull? I quipped after that it was as though Sheherazade had elected to save herself by putting the Sultan to sleep, rather than fascinating him with Arabian tales for all those nights.

But the San Franciscans’ performance served one function: It meant that Valery Gergiev’s account with the Kirov Orchestra, on Opening Night, wasn’t the worst performance of Sheherazade in Carnegie’s 2003–04 season.

The SFS’s second concert began with a violin concerto, the strange and wondrous one by Berg, played by Gil Shaham. This violinist has many virtues, and most of them were on display here. He began in an almost experimental way, as if to say, “What is this strange concerto?” His tone was a mixture of the raw and the sweet. That was appropriate. His playing was clean-lined yet Romantic—that was appropriate too. All technical matters were in the bag; one could just relax, and concentrate on interpretation. The second (and final) movement was a combination of severity and lyricism—again, appropriate. Shaham left an overall impression of intelligence, musicality, and technical wherewithal. Some objected, after the concert, that Shaham hadn’t been “passionate” enough, or “involved” enough—that he had been too restrained. My own view is that this concerto has enough “action” in it without much self-assertion on the part of the soloist. Shaham’s lack of excess was noble, and a little surprising, to me, much as I like this violinist.

The big orchestral work on this program was Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. Now, Michael Tilson Thomas is known as a Mahlerian, and not without reason: I have heard him give at least two good Mahler performances, including an excellent one of the Sixth Symphony (sometime in the mid-90s). His recordings of Mahler have won widespread acclaim.

But some of us have discerned a sad degeneration in Tilson Thomas: His Mahler interpretations have gotten slow and mannered—have become overinterpretations. So it was in this Fifth. At times he seemed to be trying to out-Lenny his mentor (Bernstein). Tempos were too slow—although not Sheherazade-slow—and ponderous. There was nothing in outright bad taste, mind you; one was simply all too aware of the conductor, and his conscious shaping of the music, and the personal stamp he was placing upon it. I, for one, appreciate that Tilson Thomas has thought about this symphony, and that he loves it (which is obvious). But as soon as they tell a conductor, “You’re a Mahler genius!” look out: He’s liable to believe it and go off the rails.

I will retail one of my favorite musical anecdotes, which I prize for its wisdom: Before rehearsing a Beethoven concerto, the late pianist Malcolm Frager turned to an orchestra and said, “As I am not a Beethoven specialist, shall we take the proper tempos?”

The Adagietto in the Mahler Fifth is one of the most beautiful things in all of music. But it must not be too slow. It must breathe, must move, to have its effect. It is not a dirge. (And even a dirge must move.) Tilson Thomas brought the music to a standstill, which is just ruinous. The marking might as well have been Lento (Lenny-to?), not Adagietto. And the etto, frankly, should make the music slightly faster than plain Adagio.

The final movement began with a very, very, very unfortunate French-horn entrance. Put it this way: If your worst enemy were principal French horn of an orchestra, you would not wish on him an entrance like this one. But the man (or woman—I didn’t see) recovered nicely, the mark of a champ. Tilson Thomas himself did better in this movement than in previous ones, letting the music speak for itself more, giving to Mahler some of his excitement and energy (Mahler’s own excitement and energy, I mean). Of course, a movement like this, inviting less “interpretation,” is harder to wreck. You simply let it run. Tilson Thomas at least did that.

Leave the orchestral for a violin recital, that presented by Maxim Vengerov, with Fazil Say at the piano. Vengerov is the Russian virtuoso who is one of the most gifted and thrilling musicians in the world; Say is a Turkish pianist whose discography includes an album of Gershwin. We live in a global village, musically and otherwise.

Much as Vengerov may be known for showing off, he gave a rather “serious” recital, composed of Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven (in that order). I am reminded of a funny line from Artur Schnabel: “My programs are boring both before and after intermission.”

Vengerov is never boring, needless to say (neither was Schnabel). He played Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in B minor fairly freely, but not incorrectly or offensively. His lines were long and soulful, but legitimately Baroque. He reminded me of Ida Haendel, a violinist of a previous generation who refused to straitjacket her early music. Fazil Say was similar to Vengerov in the Bach, although he should have been a touch more assertive. No matter what you do, you will not outshine or upstage Vengerov—have no fear.

Following the Bach was a Brahms sonata, that in A major, Op. 100. This is one of the most amiable works in Brahms, which makes it very amiable indeed. Vengerov played with authority and heart, as usual. He infused the first movement with nostalgia. His last note—the last note of this movement—was bracingly aristocratic. I mention this particular because Vengerov does nothing perfunctorily or carelessly. There is not a banal or wasted gesture in his playing.

As for the pianist, he was much too retiring, too hesitant, too tentative—one wanted to goose him a little.

In the second movement, Vengerov was a bit of a gypsy, although he retained that nobility. And the third movement—with the unusual marking of Allegro grazioso (quasi andante)—is one of the noblest things in Brahms, speaking of nobility. It also finds the composer in one of his sweet, tranquil, nothing-will-agitate-me moods. Vengerov captured all this splendidly, showing his musical affinity (his affinity for anything musical). Fazil Say remained a bit bland.

The second half of the program began with a Brahms work almost never played: the Scherzo in C minor for Violin and Piano. Here, Vengerov was both vigorous and playful; his pianist, happily, was the same way.

And then the printed program concluded with Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata, one of the most important works in the violin-and-piano literature (although a pianist might object that we should say the piano-and-violin literature, as Beethoven clearly indicated his home instrument first on the title page). In the opening movement, Vengerov wasn’t at his sharpest, technically, and neither was Say. One wanted more articulation and definition from both of them. But the second movement—Andante con variazione—was nicely shaped, each variation given its character. It was a pleasure to hear Vengerov’s creativity blend with Beethoven’s. The violinist did not detract from the master; he enhanced him.

The Finale (Presto) was sheer enjoyment, with no one enjoying the experience more than Vengerov. This is typically the case with him.

The first encore was a Brahms Hungarian Dance, in G minor, and it was ultra-stylish. You have heard this piece a million times, but not quite like this: Vengerov played it as though improvising it on the spot. He was hammy, no question, but extremely musically so. Brahms would have applauded.

And then Vengerov told the story of Ferdinand the Bull. Excuse me? Yes, in an endearing Russian accent, he related this story beloved by children around the world. He would play intermittently, too, as this is a composition by Alan Ridout, a Briton (who died in 1996). A little narration, a little playing—that is the piece. The entire performance was enormously charming, but it was not just charming: Vengerov showed off a fearsome, diabolical technique.

He did not leave the audience with that, however, closing the evening with Massenet’s “Méditation,” which from this bow was equal parts purity and feeling.

The most talked-about portrayal of the Metropolitan Opera season has been the Salome of Karita Mattila. Salome, as you know, is the mad sprint of an opera by Richard Strauss—a close cousin of his Elektra. Mattila, as you also know, is the Finnish soprano, a conqueror of important operatic roles and a recitalist of electricity and taste. Frankly, it will be hard for anyone who saw Mattila as Salome to see anybody else in that role. She was the complete package: vocal, musical, dramatic, psychological. You might find someone to sing the role as well; you might find someone to act it as well. But you would be hard pressed to find someone to deliver the total goods, à la Karita.

In the new production by Jürgen Flimm, Mattila was onstage the entire time—right from the beginning. You couldn’t take your eyes off her. She was a crazed brat, capable of seducing anyone. There was no end to her wiles. And she was almost frighteningly involved in her role. The dance? Choreographed by Doug Varone, it was ferocious: some (mock) bullfighting, some (mock) fornication, a little lapdancing and pole-swinging, from the strip club—everything. It all ended in nudity (“full frontal,” as we say). The house was thick with opera glasses. In fact, sellers of such glasses must have done a brisk business.

The Mattila voice is an interesting one. It can be pillowy, indistinct; and then it can take on focus and precision. One moment it is diffuse; the next, it cuts. I have never been able to explain it. On the night I heard her, the diction was a little mushy, and the voice was a little overextended. But why not push it to the limit? This is Salome, after all, no time to be shy. One can husband later.

Mattila sang the Final Scene—the Mad Liebestod, I like to call it—brilliantly. This was an actual conversation with that severed head (albeit a one-way conversation). She kissed that head, finally, for what seemed like a full three minutes, then fell back exhausted. I think the entire audience, after this opera—this mad sprint—fell back exhausted, too.

The tenor Matthew Polenzani was Narraboth, and he was gorgeous-voiced, as usual. Albert Dohmen was Jochanaan, and he was rich and arresting. He lent a touch of holiness to this role (as one should). The Herod of Siegfried Jerusalem was properly rough and befuddled, and the Herodias of Larissa Diadkova was bold and slashing. (She is the Russian mezzo who makes a powerhouse of an Azucena. You sit up a little straighter, when she is around.)

The production, by Flimm, was a success. The set was pleasing to the eye and appropriate to the drama. Dress was modern, including tuxedos, a zebra-striped evening gown (or was it a cocktail dress?), and what appeared to be a one-piece bathing suit, with some kind of cape behind it. The angels of death, which gathered as the drama built, were a little much, but I liked that the tops of their wings resembled Klan hoods. This is a crazy opera, and it can use a crazy production—a crazy-intelligent production, which this is.

The conductor was Valery Gergiev, and I have rarely heard him so effective. He handled Strauss’s score superbly, with excellent pacing, and just the right nervousness, before leading into outright terror.

Salome is about the shortest experience you can have in an opera house (something like an hour and forty minutes). With Karita Mattila, it is also about the most memorable. Those who missed Birgit Nilsson in this role should be sorry. Those who will miss Mattila, I dare say, should be sorrier.


This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 9, on page 46
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https://newcriterion.com/issues/2004/5/nychronicle-may04-1492

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