Bard Festival, New York State, USA: Saturday 12 August 2006
When this year’s theme for the annual Bard Music Festival was announced late last year, Liszt and his Times aroused considerable attention and posed high hopes for those interested in the general productivity of Liszt and the entire New German School. Liszt and his Times turned out to be exactly that, with relatively little representation of the Weimar circle showing that the theme definitely was not Liszt and his School The result was programming of interest but diffuse in focus. It’s amazing that Joachim Raff was represented by two major works, one orchestral, prelude to Der Sturm (Shakespeare’s The Tempest) and the other chamber music, the Sextet in G minor for Strings, Op. 178, since other notables of the circle, Peter Cornelius and Felix Draeseke were given short shrift.
It seems that, confronted with the fact that 2006 is the 150th anniversary of the death of Robert Schumann and the possibility of the first US stage presentation of Schumann’s ill-fated opera Genoveva a major consideration, Schumannianer like Volkmann, Clara Wieck and Brahms got invites as well. Other composers represented had only tenuous connections with Liszt, some simply by being contemporaries or the fact that Liszt had played with them or did variations on one of their melodies. To be sure, small pieces are better than none, but the New German fanatics (e.g. yours truly) would have expected say, a Cornelius opera, a Draeseke overture or symphony or a concerto or symphony by Raff, perhaps even a more representative piece of Lassen. No, but it was good to see Rubinstein and Sgambati represented, if only with small scale efforts.
This review is concerned with the orchestra concert of August 12 with Leon Botstein and his American Symphony Orchestra. The program was most attractive with the first half dedicated to Liszt’s Heroide funebre (Heroic Elegy), H.W.Ernst’s Concerto in F# minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op.23 (Concerto pathetique) and Liszt’s Hunnenschlacht (Battle of the Huns) followed after intermission by Joachim Raff’s prelude to Der Sturm (The Tempest). Liszt’s Concerto No. 2 in A major for Piano and Orchestra and his symphonic poem No. 11 Die Ideale (Ideals). It was a most impressive program and one which, all things considered, came off quite well, with the orchestra responding with excellent discipline and attention to Botstein’s wants.
Heroide funebre has never been one of the more successful of Liszt’s symphonic poems, possibly because as an heroic elegy it doesn’t promise expectations of another Les Preludes or Tasso and an uninitiated record buyer, seeing an average playing time of ca.25 minutes, might assume too much gloom and not enough boom. Those present at the Bard performance Saturday evening certainly had an awakening in Botstein’s controlled but steadily nuanced build to the resonant glories of the work’s concluding final section: certainly a peroration of which Liszt must have been especially proud.
For many the performance was a first live encounter with the music (e.g. yours truly once again), but despite a good half dozen recorded versions, this reviewer was constantly aware of felicitous details clouded in the LP and CD versions, not that Liszt is particularly subtle, that came forth from the stage.
The inclusion of two works of Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst in the festival programs is a good instance of the tenuous relationship to Liszt which many of the festival goers found questionable, for the equation goes somewhat like this: Ernst was a virtuoso violinist who had met Paganini and emulated him and who had met Liszt and Liszt was a virtuoso pianist who had met Paganini and as a result wished to do for the piano what Paganini had done for the violin, ergo, both having met Paganini as well as one another and both being virtuosi, logic has it therefore that kindred spirits belong together no matter what discrepancies in compositional talent and style are revealed. The two works of Ernst programmed at Bard were the evening’s performance of his F# minor Violin Concerto, Op. 23 (also known as Concerto pathetique) and his transcription of Franz Schubert’s Erlkönig for solo violin scheduled for Aug. 13.
The soloist for the Ernst was the Russian born violinist Alexander Markov who, from my distance in the audience looked more like a teenager than a 42 year old veteran! The concerto was described in the program notes as actually being the second of two which Ernst wrote in his lifetime, though what number one is like is not information available in the general music lexica, and the R.D.Darrel notes for Aaron Rosand’s mid -70s Candide recording mentions only this sole concerto with subsequent editions, one of which is a “revision” by Henri Marteau. The reference to a previous “concerto” is probably to the work titled Concertino in D major, Op. 12 of 1839. Cast in one movement, the Concerto pathetique’s most memorable thematic material borders on salon melody which, to be sure, is worked up with great skill and effect in the concerto’s 16 minute duration. Markov took the lead in the performance with a respectfully dutiful accompaniment from Botstein and the orchestra. If Markov were as young as this reviewer suspected him to be (early 20s), a projection of a fine career would be in line. Although he started quite authoritatively, towards the end of the concerto, when the virtuosic requirements became obviously excruciatingly demanding, intonation became problematic and the final double stopping was executed more in glissando fashion than with genuine articulation. Be that as it may, the performance was affecting and the soloist was generously applauded.
For Hunnenschlacht which followed, Botstein provided a surprising but most welcome introductory discourse with illustrations regarding the inspiration for Liszt, namely the painting by Wilhelm von Kaulbach, pointing out that Hunnenschlacht was one of six frescoes united thematically by portraying significant moments in history. The frescoes themselves were destroyed in Berlin bombings during the Second World War, but two of them, including Hunnenschlacht survived in portrait form. The audience was treated to black and white illustrations of the originals behind the orchestra and Hunnenschlacht was displayed throughout the performance.
When the performance had ended, there were probably quite a few wondering how Liszt could have imagined such visceral interpretation from such tepid representation of ferocity. Hunnenschlacht has had a reputation since its first performance, for over a century now, as a monumental example of bombast, bathos and bad taste. It may indeed exhibit all of these things but it is, when taken in the proper spirit, so awful it is irresistibly great. Recordings have not done justice to it over the years, as if conductors have been afraid to really let loose and unleash the extraordinary panache which is at the heart of the work. Only one recording ( mono at that) for Westminster/Nixa made in the mid-50s with the London Philharmonic under Dean Dixon has ever really caught the spirit of Hunnenschlacht (at least for these ears). With that as the benchmark, honest reaction compels me to assess Botstein’s rendition as quite acceptable, but too careful to cause any sense of genuine excitement. Admittedly his gentler approach allowed for appreciation of orchestral detail, but it was controlled forward motion which dominated, not headlong impetus or a sense of abandon. The organ interludes with orchestra outbursts toward the end were handled quite well and the actual “enlightened spirituality” of victorious Christendom was presented in all its hymnic glory, with Botstein cutting off the resounding solo organ at the end at truly the right moment. The audience gave hearty applause for the orchestra’s effort.
Although page 26 of the program booklet announced Liszt’s 2nd Piano Concerto as the opening work for the second half, the page 28 indicated that after intermission would come Joachim Raff’s prelude for Shakespeare’s Der Sturm (The Tempest), a very wise move, considering the exodus after the concerto’s performance. Despite efforts on the part of this reviewer to correct the assumption in the program notes that Edward MacDowell had published all four of Raff’s Shakespeare preludes (he was responsible only for Macbeth and Romeo und Julia), and have it announced either at the pre-concert talk or from the stage prior to the piece along with the fact that the work was receiving its US premiere, the efforts were of no avail. Time may have played a role here, but it certainly didn’t when the same information was sent to the New York Times and its arts editor to pass on for inclusion in any review of the concert. The review, by one Vivien Schweitzer, which appeared in the New York Times edition of Aug. 15 not only did not carry the information, it did not even mention that Raff’s piece was played! Instead she reserved her critical “insights” for platitudinous praise of the violin and piano soloists and gave every indication that she knew nothing about the purely orchestral works, glossing over them with equally platitudinous reference and arousing suspicion she had never heard them before. Hopefully she is not a major candidate for the presently vacant and at one time prestigious position as chief music critic for the New York Times.
Volker Tosta of Nordstern Verlag, Stuttgart, prepared a score and parts specifically for Bard from the materials provided Werner Andreas Albert for Der Sturm’s German radio performances of the late 1990s. At 16 minutes it is the longest of the Shakespeare preludes and in lieu of this particular concert ironically of almost the same length as Ernst’s violin concerto. From the very opening Botstein impressed with his handling of the score, especially since he had had the materials for barely a month prior to the performance. Although Raffianer are in dispute over the relative merits of the four Shakespeare preludes, Der Sturm came through with convincing clarity and effect. The orchestration was almost shockingly restrained in comparison with Liszt’s often brass heavy efforts of the evening and, whether the listener liked or disliked the piece, it is doubtful that any went away without at least grudgingly admitting the originality of Raff’s style. The work is a marvel of shifting colors and it is surprising how many passages reminded one of Tchaikovsky’s own wonderful symphonic poem inspired by the same Shakespeare play which, though about five years earlier than Raff’s, probably was not known to Raff. In this case coincidence has veracity, for Tchaikovsky was a devoted admirer of Raff and learned a great deal from Raff. After the concert some listeners expressed to this writer of hearing Mendelssohn references in the skittish romps of the rapid passage work of the high strings and another was sure that Tchaikovsky had been a major influence on Raff. Raff’s Der Sturm made a quite obvious positive impression on the public that evening but Botstein, for all of his genuine service and sympathetic interpretation, took but a single bow before proceeding to Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, a gesture which made his service to Raff seem more dutiful than sincere.
Soloist for the concerto was the Brazilian pianist Arnoldo Cohen who, one estimates from mention of a competition prize in 1972, is probably in his late 40s to mid 50s and exuded a stage presence of robust confidence. Aside from the famous cello-piano interlude Liszt’s concerto does not offer much opportunity for lyric reflection and Cohen proceeded to deliver a sonorously virtuosic interpretation eagerly abetted by Botstein and his fine orchestra. The audience recalled Arnoldo Cohen three times in appreciation of his demonstrated abilities.
For Die Ideale Botstein, as promised when showing Kaulbach, lowered his screen again, this time to show an English translation of the German stanzas of Schiller which Liszt had marked at appropriate places in his score, a most helpful gesture particularly for those encountering the work for the first time, either in concert or through media. Die Ideale is just short of the record length for his symphonic poems set in the first of the series, Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne (That Which One Hears on the Mountain or, as it is sometimes translated from its German equivalent, the Mountain Symphony) of a little over 30 minutes. Although cuts were certainly encountered if not expected in previous decades, Botstein seems to have delivered everything as Liszt intended. This listener has always been a bit surprised at the neglect of this symphonic poem, a neglect perhaps born of the fact that its literary starting point is poetically philosophical and as such, its musical imagery supposedly not easily grasped, a notion dispelled some forty years later by Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. Die Ideale is (no pun intended) the ideal of a symphonic poem, with Liszt exhibiting a magnificent sense of balance in the development and juxtaposition of the sentiment and moods suggested by Schiller’s text and investing an astonishingly high level of thematic invention therein. Botstein’s interpretation was all that this listener could ask for, with a breathtaking peroration at the end which was greeted with a roar of approval from an audience fully appreciative of the orchestra’s successful travail of a physically and emotionally exhausting program of musically rewarding encounter.