For the first evening of its three-night stand at the Lucerne Festival in Summer, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra offered a varied work of chamber proportions (Bartók’s Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste was originally written for the Basel Chamber Orchestra—considerably less strings were first imagined), brand-new (2009) woodwind concerto from Rodion Schtschedrin and the ever-popular Suite No.3 from Stravinsky’s Firebird Ballet—one of his earliest successes.
Hands down, the finest music of the night came from septuagenarian Schtschedrin whose Oboe Concerto brought yet another welcome breath of fresh “new” air into this 5-week series, convincingly demonstrating how something old (the form) can most certainly be new again.
The composer of the orchestration tour de force (Carmen Suite, 1968) brought his ever-inventive mind to bear on showcasing the pride of the double reeds differently than the existing repertoire (cross-reference below). One of his marvellous solutions was to link some of the soloist’s long-held pitches to other colours within the orchestra—building sonic bridges on a bed of unity—then deftly foiling the nimble instrument with its alto cousin, the English horn (performed with great distinction by Ruth Visser who artfully shaped her interventions in concert with the lead). Especially in the middle frame, “Duets,” the dialogue goes far beyond colour against colour, effectively morphing into dual personalities that appear to have known each other a very long time.
Soloist Alexei Ogrintchouk (who along with the Concertgebouw premièred the composition last June) brought his ever-dependable technique and penetrating—yet never harsh or brittle—array of tone colours to the service of Schtschedrin’s breath-defying lines and kept the audience entranced from the first inhalation to the extra-magical last gasp of vanishing art. Conductor Mariss Jansons expertly followed the dexterous talent from stem to stern. Collectively, they delivered the finest music-making of the night. The work’s closing “diminuendo al niente” will remain embedded in memory for years to come.
Happily, Schtschedrin was in the hall, delighting all concerned by sharing the stage with the players, soloist and conductor and rightfully accepting the grateful, heart-felt applause from everyone for such a magnificent achievement.
It could be argued that a further oboe concerto followed immediately in Stravinsky’s orchestral extravaganza where co-principal oboist Lucas Macías Navarro (sharing the post with Ogrintchouk) employed his decidedly darker yet equally flexible hue to the music’s advantage in its many solo lines. Not all of his colleagues fared as well when it was their turn under the spotlight (notably the key moment from the French horn), but Jansons led a merry chase through the rhythmic/melodic masterpiece much to the obvious enjoyment of the crowd.
Least successful (keeping in mind the incredibly high standard that is the baseline for this ensemble) was the Bartók. While there was much to admire from the strings at full cry, the many quieter passages and interlinking with other instruments seemed one rehearsal away from coalescing. JWR
Béla Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste
EMI S 35949, 1961
Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
In 1961, Karajan made a recording of one of Bartók’s finest creations on the Angel label with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s an extremely rough-and-ready reading where getting through seems to be the goal even as the myriad markings (notably/maddeningly the tenuto in the “Andante tranquillo”) never really enter the picture.
The rock-solid pianist and rhythmically-secure xylophone interventions are welcome highlights in the untidy affair. Still, it is Berlin and the valiant players do their best to hold things together throughout the treacherous (and brilliant) array of shifting pulse, flying syncopations, unrelenting counterpoint and motivic invention. There’s plenty of excitement but not the sort of musical drama that Bartók imagined. (Hindemith’s magical Mathis der maler fares much better on the flip side.) JWR