The tragedy of children dying before their parents is perhaps the worst of so many types of human suffering on planet Earth.
Yet even as Alban Berg prepared to complete his truncated time amongst the living, the death of Manon Gropius (just 18; from polio—the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius) drove him to put into mere notes just what the “Memory of an Angel” might sound like. He succeeded unforgettably.
In violinist Christian Tetzlaff’s hands, body and understanding, the two-part ode reached artistic heights seldom fathomed, much less scaled by many of his colleagues. It was evident from the first broken chord that his violin would be but a conduit to the exquisitely crafted art to come
Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony made a valiant effort to follow Tetzlaff’s lead but couldn’t manage the same degree of apparent spontaneity that was fuelled by the soloist’s superb technique and tone production (magically combining to deliver extra-personal, ethereal harmonics).
Part I could be described as “The Wonder of it All.” Beginning with the aforementioned lost-innocence in the composition’s foundation, the childlike simplicity of a quiet waltz only lacks one of the dance partners. The fluid texture of the solo line interweaved as best it could until the first moment of shared reflection was welcomed by all.
“The Anger Will Dissipate, Right?” might well describe the much more aggressive sections of the second part. Here, Tetzlaff used every centimetre of the bow, effusive body language and discreet looks with some of the principal players to keep ensemble on track. His deft intertwining of the particularly placed open strings—all the while adding more thoughtful ideas and colours to the flow—had, again, an innocent air: a subtle miracle of understatement.
After the clarinets tried and philosophically failed to find solace in religion via J.S. Bach (the chorale, “O Eternity, Thou Word of Thunder”), Berg’s decision to ask for a muted reply from the searching soloist seemed more poignant and “right” than ever.
As the music and the lost angel slipped away, the work’s overarching unanswered question remained as it does today: forever without a meaningful reply.
The program annotator reports that Berg never heard this last work: that can only be true on a literal level, for every single note resonates before and after the fact of performance.
The program began with an ocean-rich (the waves were strong enough to induce the heavens above Lucerne to open in drenching oneness during the performance: never underestimate the power of art and nature in collusion!) detail-light reading of Wagner’s Overture to the Flying Dutchman. (Last heard at these concerts in 1987 performed by Daniel Barenboim and l’Orchestre de Paris, perhaps a libretto-conforming seven-year landing-cycle ought to be imposed on future dockings.)
The violins were sensational as they tore into their glory when the music came to heady climax only to have a vital low-string pizzicato ignored (and nearly missed by some) a few measures later.
Beethoven’s C Minor Symphony was—maddeningly, after such a promising evening just 24 hours ago (cross-reference below)—the low point of the night.
As such a superb craftsman of sound as he has shown to be, the structure, style and pulse relationships—all bedrock of the Classical era—were largely missing in Thomas’ approach.
No attempt was made to render the inaugural sets of famous eighths as anything but triplets (they are not)—it’s just easier that way.
Pointless affectation reared its ugly head at the close of the first movement (collapsing the impetuous drive); at the end of the “Andante con moto” Thomas gave a near-laughable pull back of the key dotted-rhythm’s last hurrah.
The “Scherzo” stepped over the line of scintillating excitement to reckless speed—little wonder both transitions to the blazing “Allegro” were (a) untidy (b) totally lost on the tympanist (through no fault of his own).
Lack of overall consistency in the note lengths made for some short-term variety but long-term contradictions left this performance sadly wanting, especially given the extremely talented musicians on stage. JWR