|Arnold Böcklin, Der Toteninsel (New York version, 1880)|
That Shostakovich wrote his first symphony at the age of nineteen, as a graduation piece for his conservatory education, is a fact I tend to willfully forget because of the feelings of inadequacy it induces in me. Ah well. In the hands of Robertson and this orchestra, it snuck up on us in an eerie and antic opening, unsettled and unsettling, only to later overwhelm us with crashing waves of sound. It's not a piece I know well, but here, I found it thrilling, and was struck both by its apparently boundless energy, and its stubborn refusal to find a center of balance. Its dance rhythms were brittle, its reveries never really peaceful. I was reminded of a line from Rilke's Book of Images: "Springtime on many pathways / but nowhere, yet, a goal." Under Robertson's leadership, it was wonderfully fierce. We had an interval in which to recover and compose ourselves to contemplate death instead of life. The full title of Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead specifies that it is "after Böcklin," inspired by the Symbolist painter's Toteninsel, of which there were several versions, and which was the subject of countless reproductions around the turn of the century. (You can hear it as conducted by the composer here and here.) My Respected Father was successful in inculcating me with a great love for Rachmaninov, and I haven't gotten to hear his music performed live nearly as much as I'd like. Here, orchestral precision and passion were combined in a taut, richly atmospheric reading, with Charon's oar stirring the waves, walls of brassy sound rising like rock faces, and a heartbeat faltering somewhere in the depths of the strings.
|1909 portrait of Pappenheim by Schoenberg|
Deborah Voigt's Woman did not strike me as either a hysteric or a Bildungsroman protagonist, and for this I am profoundly grateful. Given Schoenberg's wild ways with syllables, the presence of titles failed to raise my purist hackles (I even sneaked a peek or two myself.) Voigt's German, however, was not only clear, but expressive, with delicious, word-specific ferocity and tenderness as well as delicious consonants. There's no danger of the Woman not appearing a bit desperate, and a bit delusional, so I appreciated the strength of will that Voigt brought to her, and even strength of mind. The wild leaps of the vocal line may not always have been perfectly smooth, but they were invariably thrilling. I was on the edge of my seat, and emotionally involved, throughout the Woman's narrative, here sympathetic as well as surreal. Voigt's soprano occasionally blending into the orchestral thicket seemed apt under the circumstances. Robertson and the orchestra did indeed make it sound, if not easy (nothing about those notes is easy!) then inevitable, with a propulsive inner logic. And, again, the atmosphere was superb; I don't think I've been that scared of a nocturnal forest since I first watched Snow White. After the eerie conclusion ebbed into silence, Robertson knelt and kissed the diva's hand (aww,) and we in the audience roared lustily for both of them.