player and star soloist: Emanuel Ax.
Little Night Music
Saratoga Chamber Music Festival
Performing Arts Center, Aug. 3
Arnold Schoenberg himself suggested that his tone-poem Transfigured
Night, a lush, emotionally varied work for string sextet,
could be just as effective without any knowledge of the verse
that inspired it.
Heís right, of course; any truly worthy piece of music works
completely in the abstract, achieving access to the listeners
emotions with a directness shared by no other art form. But
how richer we are to know in advance the pictures that inspired
Mussorgskyís most famous work, or the shenanigans limned in
Straussís Till Eulenspiegel!
Night, one of the works in the opening concert of this
summerís Saratoga Chamber Music Festival season, was inspired
by Richard Dehmelís brief, haunting poem about a couple whose
moonlit walk turns sour when the woman reveals that sheís
carrying another manís child. Their reconciliationóthe transfigurationóis
prompted by the manís loving acceptance of the woman and her
child, which thus will become his child.
As a musical journey, the work packs into a half-hour the
kind of emotional vicissitudes you typically feel staying
up all night. Itís hard to explain what youíve been through,
yet sunrise prompts a sense of rebirth. The music surges and
retreats, with a climax so suggestive ofówell, a climax, that
you easily could infer that this reconciliation was partly
achieved through a most intimate coupling not spelled out
in Dehmelís verse.
Itís Brahmsian stuff, as the composer acknowledged, and, performed
in this concert on the heels of a late piece by Richard Strauss,
you can hear where Schoenberg also could have gone in that
The magic of the work is self-contained, and needs nothing
wrung out of its interpretation, something clearly understood
by the players. What they gave it was technical excellence
and an intuitive sense of rapport. Thatís something you expect
at this festival, especially given the fact that most of the
players are members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and thus
already enjoy a close musical relationship, but thrown onto
the intimate canvas of chamber music, itís an even more breathtaking
Omitted from the program was the full roster of players, who
were: Michael Ludwig and Jason De Pue, violinists; Anna Marie
Ahn Petersen and Carrie Dennis, violists, and cellists John
Koen and Ohad Bar-David.
We saw the same lineup in the opening work, Straussís prelude
from the opera Capriccio, Op. 85, except that Festival
artistic director Chantal Juillet was the first violinist.
Where Transfigured Night is fervent, this brief piece
is witty, taking fragmented thematic elements through impressive
textural changes while remaining in Straussís unique harmonic
The work is in rondo form, but the transitions to the contrasting
sections played games with us, betokening great drama but
delivering whipped cream. A terrific companion to the Schoenberg,
it also set the mood for the big piece of the second half,
Schubertís Trout Quintet.
Pianist Emanuel Ax, who would solo with the orchestra the
following night, was at the keyboard; violinist Leonidas Kavakos,
due to play the Berg concerto two nights later, played first
violin; Juillet switched to viola, Koen was the cellist, and
Harold Robinson played string bass.
Schubert begins the piece with a noble introduction, but then
it sounds as if the piano needs to be coaxed into playing
along with the first theme. This is characteristic of Schubertís
wit, which is more refined than Mozartís but less subtle than
Beethovenís. And thereís no more compelling tunesmith. Once
that first movement gets rolling, with jaunty pizzicato from
the bass, itís a heartbeat away from a lively jazz song.
The centerpiece of the work, of course, is the fourth movement,
a set of variations on one of Schubertís most famous songs:
ďDie Forelle,Ē a lovelorn look at a trout, complete with a
rippling brook in the accompaniment.
We donít hear that brook until the final variation, which
brings us to the finished form of the song; in the meantime,
we get birdlike trills in the first variation, a legato theme
for cello and bass in the third, and a storm in the fourthóvery
much in keeping with recent weather patterns.
As one of the all-time great pieces of chamber music, this
is a work of which I have many recordings and have seen performed
many times, and I canít recall a finer or more exciting performance
that this one. You were drawn in to such a point that you
forgot anyone else was there, and yet you were aware that
all were sharing in this once-in-a-lifetime event.
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Performing Arts Center, Aug. 4
Surround yourself with too much music and you run the risk
of overlooking the surprises. This is how I analyzed my reaction
to pianist Emanuel Axís encore during last Wednesdayís opening
night concert at SPAC. Sent back to the keyboard with an imperious
gesture from conductor Charles Dutoit, Ax made the surprisingly
contrasting choice of the Chopin Berceuse, which he
played with such understated delicacy that it roared with
emotion and I found myself moved to tears, which I havenít
had as a concert reaction in a very long time.
It was the Mozart concerto that did it. The Piano Concerto
No. 25 in C major seems to be the least performed of the
composerís mature works in that form, but itís a stirring
piece the opens with the kind of martial character usually
placed in the key of E-flat major. Confounded expectations
are part of Mozartís charm, and this concerto has more charm
than an old-fashioned finishing school.
Although the Philadelphia Orchestraís forces were somewhat
reduced, the number of players was still far greater than
a truly Mozartean orchestra. Which didnít bother me in the
least. I can look back to my early-music-listening years,
which predate the original-instruments frenzy of the past
few decades, and recall great satisfaction at Mozart symphonies
as conducted by Reiner and piano concertos played by Casadesus.
Emanuel Ax played the Casadesus cadenza, so itís not surprising
that his delicacy of touch recalled the extraordinary style
of the older pianist. No crashing or pounding through the
piece; just ripples.
Although the orchestral force was large, conductor Charles
Dutoit kept the dynamics just where they needed to be to complement
the sound of the solo instrument; the fact that there were
so many players added a wonderful richness to the timbre.
The orchestra was back to full strength for the second half
of the concert, which comprised a single work: Mahlerís Symphony
No. 1, written a century after Mozartís concerto. Mahler
was out to make his name as a symphonist, and did it with
a bang. The hour-long piece travels a fantastically varied
orchestral canvas, beginning with what might as well be the
worldís awakening and finishing in fortississimo triumph.
Mahler himself called the work a tone-poem and titled it ďThe
Titan,Ē and explains the first movement as springís awakening
after a long winter. Off-tempo birdsong over rumblings in
the bass usher in a dreamy dance that soon turns, so characteristically
of Mahler, into a frenzy, and thus does the work waltz us
through contrast after contrast.
There are the usual lšndler, sounding like drunken
peasants dancing, and thereís a bizarre third movement based
on an old sardonic fairy-tale portrait of a hunterís funeral,
giving us a childrenís nursery canon rendered in a minor key
that also is interrupted by mad dance music.
You have to surrender yourself to this piece, and Dutoit and
the orchestra made it simple. Recent interpreters canít seem
to round an emotional corner without aggressively altering
tempo, unlacing the work with portamento that really isnít
necessary; Dutoit, however, stayed the course and let the
music do the work for him. By the time the 20-minute-long
final movement reached its enormous climax, with the entire
French horn section on its feet, we were goners. Brilliant,
memorable stuff that Iíll replay in my head for a long time
Before the concert began, cellist Robert Cafaro, an area native,
noted the recent death of local concert enthusiast Jack Sheehan,
a man who never seemed to miss an event (and whom I always
enjoyed discussing those concerts with), and whose overhead
applause style made him singularly memorable. Eschewing the
traditional moment of silence, Cafaro asked the audience to
applaud, and they did soóall in Jackís trademark manner. It
was a fitting tribute to a man who will be sorely missed and
impossible to replace.