in: Reviews

July 22, 2010

Mendelssohn, Shostakovich with Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, then Mahler with Tanglewood Orchestra

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On July 15, 2010, in Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio offered deeply affecting accounts of the Haydn Piano Trio No. 25 in E minor, Hob. XV:12, the Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op.67, and the Mendelssohn Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66, followed on July 17 in the Shed by a provocative but inconsistent treatment of the Mahler Symphony No. 3 by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, showcasing the brilliant young principals of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, director, and the American Boychoir, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, conductor. The juxtaposition of these two concerts led this reviewer  to reflect on Jewishness and music with Mendelssohn and Mahler, which I have addressed in an accompanying article here.

On the heels of the Mahler Second Symphony on July 9, with its whimsical melodic Yiddishisms and Klezmer fiddling and final intoning of a hymn that yearns for heavenly relief from the pain of life and the passionate strivings of love, the Mahler Third appears first as a woodsy, chirping paean to pantheism, transformed at the start of the final movement into a hymn in which the protagonist converses with God, confessing, “I have trespassed against the Ten Commandments,” before finding “Heavenly joy, that has no end. . . By Jesus and for the salvation of all.” This precedes a long musical reflection that evokes the melodic, and especially the harmonic, legacy of Richard Wagner, whose explicit anti-Semitism did not deter Mahler’s life-long infatuation with his music. So, too, does the Mendelssohn Piano Trio No. 2 end with a tempestuous fantasia that incorporates allusions both to hymns “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past” and J.S. Bach’s polytonal masterpiece on the theme of final judgment, “Before Your Throne I Now Appear” (“Vor deinen Thron”), interwoven with Hebraic major-minor melodic inflections resonating to those struck in its second movement.

The reception of Mahler’s Third Symphony was generally very positive, but on April 15, 1910, one influential French critic, Georges Humbert, editor of La Vie Musicale, ascribed its ‘enigmatic originality’ to the manner in which “these clichés mingle and collide,” that represent, he asserts, “an accurate reflection of his Jewishness.” Mendelssohn and Mahler, however, appeared never to cease being aware of the prejudicial context of their social and cultural worlds. Is it not then logical to surmise that their intentional inclusion of clearly identifiable Jewish and Christian liturgical themes had deep meaning, and that the complexity of some of their most inspired compositions reflected their personal aspirations, struggles, and conflicts? As it happens, both were literate and articulate men, and said so in many words as well as notes. The task at hand is to reflect on the music and performance of these works.

Because the Piano Trio No. 2 by Dmitri Shostakovich, a non-Jew, was performed first in the sequence of works here under review, however, it is appropriate here to note that he composed it in 1944, as the terrible violence of both the Stalin and Hitler regimes toward Russians and Jews was increasingly evident. Notwithstanding his having received the Stalin Prize in 1941 for his piano quintet, Shostakovich’s explicit references to Hebraic themes in the last, so-called “Jewish” movement of this work led to its being banned in the Soviet Union until after Stalin’s death.

In the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson concert, there was an atmosphere of exquisite gentility. Individually and together, they approached their instruments with a delicacy, never with overtly passionate expressions of physical engagement with the music. But beneath the surface, with one’s eyes closed, one could not but discern a ferocious commitment to every note of the music, and a nearly telepathic reading of the others’ feelings. The surface sheen was smooth and unruffled, but the experience of listening was both profound and revelatory.

The Haydn was played with a kind of respiratory organicity. The music breathed, and unfolded with a wonderful logic. This piano trio is not a simple work, and it carries an unusual polytonality for its day, in the first movement with minor to major ambiguities and harmonic subtleties, from G to E minor, from A 7th to D minor, and from B 7th to E Major in rapid sequence, and a nearly romantic quality. The end of the movement was particularly lovely, with an emotionally settling and fulfilling harmonic descent to C 7th, B 77th and E minor cadences. Kalichstein, using light accents, gave brilliant emphasis to the expressive dynamics of his colleagues.

The second and third movements were equally interesting in harmonic richness and interweaving melodies. This was Haydn at his most masterful, played by virtuosi at the top of their forms. The scampering piano lines of the Rondo Presto, with warm cello countermelodies, and the tempered, ever-engaged expressivity of Laredo’s violin opened and closed phrases with fulsome and satisfying intelligence. Flowing, rapid piano runs, doubled in the violin, toward the end of the third movement, were superbly well coordinated down to the last fermata, before ending in a delicious decrescendo. Never had Haydn seemed so percipient and confident, and it could not have happened without such visionary ensemble playing.

The Shostakovich began with Robinson’s devastatingly sad high cello harmonics, giving way to a plaintive violin line in the middle range, muted, and descending downward, with the piano, to a low G. The whole range of an unfolding tragedy was forecast in this introduction. Now the cello, with high double stops and lines parallel to the violin’s, provoked a sense of worried contemplation, transmuting with the violin into a spicatto section, the bows bouncing off the strings as the piano, in unison octaves, broke into a mournful contrapuntal line, followed by high, keening violin lines, pizzicato cello, and repeated eighth notes by the strings in a minor tonality.

Many colors, many textures, came quickly, building in volume and intensity and, at the same time, the tempo pulling back as rising lines gave way to dissonant descents. Then folksy, dense, but straightforward melodies, arched over Bartokian scrapings and pizzicatos in the violin and cello. Over the pizzicato strings, Kalichstein sketched thoughtful wisps of legato melodies and chordal phrases before the emergence of a brief, hard, emphatic waltz, and a final return to 4/4 meter and a broadly bowed E minor chord. This was beautiful playing of a rapidly unfolding story of struggle and defeated hope.

The allegro non troppo beginning of the next movement rang with Eastern European resonances of Khatchaturian and much-admired Stravinsky, with swinging, scraping, groaning strings, and repeated dotted eighth/16th note repetitions. Kalichstein hit a series of ascending eighth notes with the middle finger of his left hand in an off-hand display of virtuosity, giving each note a clarion quality that deftly elevated the mood.

In the Largo that followed, dissonant, minor chords grouped around B minor, C# minor, and F# minor in a tragic confluence, and Laredo intoned the first of a series of dramatically-extended Hebraic lines, minor, transforming legatos over simple, sustained chords. Robinson’s cello sang a prayerful transliteration of one of these lines, giving way to powerful chords expressed by both strings. Now the strings squeezed out a sad melody with evident Jewish sensibility, that bore little resemblance to the pleasant, village schmaltz of the Mahler Second Symphony.

This was serious, the stuff of oppression and suffering. A wisp of the Kol Nidre hymn from the Yom Kippur liturgy expanded into a touching, extended theme of prayer, the reverie interrupted by a weird dance with rapid pizzicatos in the violin, left-hand piano rhythms, and then, cello pizzicatos that morphed into bowed parallel fifths over another, unmistakably Hebraic theme by the piano. Through folksy rhythms and bold, diatonic harmonies (F maj., E maj., F maj., E maj., E mi., C maj., G maj., C maj., Db maj.) the development of this theme proceeded through violin, then cello, then piano rhythmic variations, then sawing, mean tritones in the cello, and, suddenly, a passionate cello line that arched over broad piano arpeggios.

The violin jumped into the dance, intending, perhaps, to rescue the cello from the tragic juggernaut, and the passage ended with a sweet, comforting C major cadence. Brilliant, confusing, emotionally layered music, that felt the more devastating because of the trio’s astounding restraint. They knew this music and clearly felt no need to declaim its ineluctable progression toward annihilation.

So the ominous piano left hand rumbles that followed came as no surprise, as the bit of dancing over a light, rhythmic groove by the violin morphed into savage tritones, growing louder and louder. Kalichstein pressed hard, the violin and cello protested in response, sounding the dance again, but the devil was on to them.

Suddenly there was another moment of light, a clear, open piano line reminiscent of the Fifth Symphony, stated slowly, with nearly unbearable intensity. Hebraic inflections in the high violin register signaled a hope of God’s rescue, but the tempo accelerated as rapid, downward arpeggios blew the ensemble apart. Each instrument voiced its separate distress, the violin in spicatto, the cello in sliding, slipping glissandos, and the piano in independent flight across the keyboard. Then suddenly, in unison, the violin and cello came together again in unison in, repeated, and yet again repeated set of Hebraic phrases.

The story, so elegantly, yet forcefully, expressed, drew to its inexorable close with harmonies voiced in the cello over low piano figures. They grew to a liturgical progression (B minor to Gb Major) with violin and cello pizzicatos in Gb Major tonality expiring softly over a deep Gb in the piano. The horror gave way in the end to a philosophical awareness of life’s immutable meaning, and after sustained applause, the intermission began with an unusual quieting of the crowd.

Out on the Ozawa Hall loggia, near the stage door, Yo-Yo Ma, Joseph Silverstein, and Emmanuel Ax, as formidable a piano trio as one can imagine in a concert audience, were conversing intensely with their friends. This memorable Tanglewood scene speaks for itself.

Concluding the concert, the second Mendelssohn Piano Trio was brought out with zest and excitement. Virtuoso piano runs with string accents were voiced with stunning dynamic variations, giving nuanced emphasis to the quick harmonic transitions from major to minor and back. Laredo’s and Robinson’s sublimely expressive playing evinced personal involvement with every one of Mendelssohn’s melodic experiments, and Kalichstein’s technical virtuosity, in one particularly stunning rapid descending line, was magnificently calibrated not to overweigh his colleagues.

The second movement, with its deliciously ambiguous, shifting 6/8 and 9/8 rhythmic sensibility, began with a gorgeous, waltzy theme, voiced over subtle, internal lines that played with the treble rhythms. A minor interlude suggested a bit of happy Jewishness. It resolved, however, in the major. The counterpoint here was reminiscent of the perfection one hears in Beethoven at his most confident and mature, the inflected, fascinating, lines breathing life into soaring romantic phrases, here splendidly nuanced with just the right swellings and diminuendos by this wonderful ensemble.

Kalichstein’s musicality, continuous adjusting his dynamics to fit the ensemble, graced the third movement with liquid right hand lines, swirling phrases, and astounding, sudden shifts in volume. Pizzicato strings accompanied the finale of this little piano concerto.

Mendelssohn’s proclamation of a happy conversion to Lutheranism informed the fourth movement, beginning with major/minor harmonic shifts at a flowing 6/8 tempo, and B 7th pause before the statement of “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past.” A few Jewish themes flowed in and out of its development, cheerily resolving in a G 7th/C cadence. The hymn returned triumphant, notwithstanding the intrusion of fierce, diminished arpeggios, and a cold, clear, C major tonality, stood its ground.

The extent to which this trio tells Mendelssohn’s own story, as I explain in the accompanying article, may be a matter for conjecture, but this intensely sympathetic reading yielded inescapably to a sense of deep personal meaning, both to the composer and to the players. This was chamber music at its exalted best, giving satisfactions both emotional and intellectual, notwithstanding the disturbing themes and countercurrents.

By contrast, the Mahler Third under Michael Tilson Thomas, gave pointed emphasis to the individual virtuosity of a number of Tanglewood Fellows, and to great extent the whole was sublimated to its parts. This is a work that is full of episodes, presenting no few challenges to its conductor to pull together a coherent narrative arc. Especially during the long contemplation at the very end, the orchestra seemed often to meander. But there were numerous satisfactions, indeed.

In the first movement, splendid horn fanfares and bursts of tympani (two sets!) gave way to dynamically-nuanced, melodic lines that extended from affectingly soft-edged contrabassoon (Thomas DeWitt) to warmly expressive mezzopiano tuba (Landres Bryant) to well-blended, muted trumpets to magnificent unison phrases by the entire horn section over sustained D minor strings. The forest was lovely, with many quick, delightful solo turns from the first trombone, with its marvelously expressive natural vibrato (Samuel Schlosser), the sweetly singing English horn (Kristina Goettler) that gave relief after an unusually shaggy entrance by the woodwind ensemble, and the superbly talented concert mistress (Breana Bauman).

Schlosser’s trombone gave a fabulous accounting of one of the most exposed challenges to the low brass in the Mahler oeuvre, an extended melody developed with heart-rending, romantic circles in the middle trombone range, through harmonies shaded by excursions through D minor, D major, and back. One was reminded of the Ulricht hymn in the last movement of the Second Symphony, with its yearning for relief, as Mahler put it in his own words, from the passionate strivings of love.

After a lovely oboe statement by Sarah Lewis, whose English horn distinguished the Webern setting of the Ricercare from Bach’s Musical Offering the previous week in Ozawa Hall, a fine post-horn solo by David Cohen heralded a march that shone a spotlight on sprightly melodies and fascinating polytonalities and forward-looking chromaticisms. The orchestral playing was impressive, and Michael Tilson Thomas bounced on his toes, seemingly in tribute to Leonard Bernstein’s Tanglewood legacy. Thomas, however, for reasons known only to himself, kept hushing the brass, just as the martial spirit called for them to cry out. Bernstein certainly would have called for more!

Velvet sounds from Schlosser’s trombone returned later in the movement, in a melody that descended to a fine, strong, resonant low E in seventh position, an uncommonly beautiful note in the awkward depth of this saucy instrument, whose simplicity betrays its challenges to serious classical expression. Virtually every sustained note was burnished by vibrato, with nary a shake of the slide. Tommy Dorsey, playing his iconic theme song at the height of his powers in the 1930’s, could not have accomplished this, seduced as he was, and as most commercial players still are, by the easy, sexy vibrato that the lubricious slide offers the trombone player. Such convincing, natural vibrato as Schlosser’s is difficult to accomplish and to sustain, and he served this entire movement memorably.

Martial themes poked through the forestial and riverine landscape at odd intervals, counterposing aggressive human strivings with the equilibrium of nature, where the temple of Mahler’s idealized world is found. In the arc of Mahler’s symphony composition, this is perhaps his most intuitively comprehensible work, with fewer complexities and struggles than the others. The offstage drums and horns, Ivesian intersections of marching bands, blasts of percussion and brass, firm platforms for instrumental display, and straightforward structure, make for more than an hour of satisfied listening.

In its vocal passages, starting with the chime imitation by the boy choir, their ding-dong syllables heartily welcomed by the women choristers, the Symphony then lifts its sight toward God in Heaven. Mahler’s words, as noted in the second paragraph of this review, appear to celebrate his abandonment of his Jewish faith to the promise of Christian salvation. In this performance, the mezzo, Karen Cargill, possessed of a lovely, dark, and shimmering instrument, used her powers superbly in giving voice to Friederich Neitzsche’s summoning of Nature’s message to man:

Oh man, give heed!
What does deep midnight say?
I slept!
From a deep dream have I waked!
The world is deep,
And deeper than the day had thought!
Deep in its pain!
Joy deeper still than heartbreak!
Pain speaks: Vanish!
But all joy seeks eternity,
Seeks deep, deep eternity.

These provocative texts and this powerful music surely do not solve the paradoxes we face in being human; our yearnings for love, acceptance, and spiritual meaning, if not transformation exist side-by-side with our proclivities toward cruelty, destruction, and mindless exploitation of the natural world around us. But there is, perhaps, no better way than through music to pose these big questions. These evenings of music gave pause to acknowledge our common humanity, with all its manifest imperfections.

Eli Newberger studied music theory and reviewed classical music for the Yale Daily News. Performing music, he wrote in “Medicine of the Tuba” in Doctors Afield (Yale University Press, 1999), helps him to care. That chapter and other writings on music and medicine may be found on his website, here.

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