Sunday, October 14, 2012

Wagner and Strauss with the Met Orchestra: sausendes, brausendes Rad der Zeit

Der Saengerkreis, Moritz von Schwind (c. 1845-55)
The Met Orchestra's generous matinee concert at Carnegie Hall could have been (cheekily) subtitled "A Short Cultural History of the Late Nineteenth Century." We had Romanticism, Nature, religious fervor tied to Nature, sexual longing in conflict with sexual mores, Nietzsche, and the dark anxieties of the early twentieth century, all packed into two hours. Semyon Bychkov led the orchestra with a sure and deliberate hand; Michelle DeYoung, substituting for Eva-Maria Westbroek, gave a beautiful account of the Wesendonck Lieder.

I've yet to hear Tannhäuser live, so this was only my second in-person encounter with the overture, which I love with defensive ardor. The tone of the brass was sweet and smooth and gorgeous, inviting us into the opera's world with appropriate solemnity, and the strings also achieved a remarkable degree of nuances, with their urgency like the pulse of blood. The crescendo that opens triumphantly into "Der Gnade Heil" gave me goosebumps. Indeed, the emotional range of the overture was striking; Bychkov kept even the most frantic outbursts (Stets soll nur Dir, nur Dir mein Lied ertönen!) at a decidedly less frantic pace than I expected; the playing, however, was focused enough that this was remarkably effective. The clarinet's "Geliebter, komm!" was very fine, just on the border of Rührseligkeit. I thought I detected a touch of uncertainty on the dramatic brass chords in the last sequence, but the whole was brought to an impressive resolution.

DeYoung; photo (c) Dario Acosta/Opera News
After a decent pause, we were given the Wesendonck Lieder, the mood of which could hardly have contrasted more vividly with the blazing certainty of what had gone before. The orchestral playing was detailed and sensitive, and DeYoung, rather than using her gleaming mezzo to make the texts a proclamation, emphasized the interiority of the cycle. DeYoung's German was always intelligible (hooray) and her text painting was lovely, notably in the first and last songs of the cycle. Bychkov's reading, interestingly to me, insisted on an unresolved tension in each of the songs--between the rhythm of a graceful berceuse and tremulous yearning in "Der Engel"; in "Stehe still," between the repetitions of a spinning wheel gone mad and an emotional sensitivity without center or stay. DeYoung and the orchestra did a brilliant job of evoking the claustrophobic unreality of the greenhouse and what it stands for; emerging from that trap, the intense immersion of "Schmerzen" seemed a release. The intoxication of "Träume," equally intense, was infinitely sweeter... but still yearning, with the repose of the grave hard to imagine in the midst of overwhelming passion.

The vast expanses of the Alpensymphonie were navigated with confidence by Bychkov and the Met orchestra; following them, while enormously impressed with their treatment of detail, I was left uncertain as to what I was to make of the whole. It was still powerful, and I may be in a minority (I don't know the piece very well, although I did do my homework with a number of recordings and articles) as the Carnegie Hall audience greeted it with, first, respectful silence, and then sustained enthusiasm that developed into European-style rhythmic clapping. For me the vivid impressions of individual movements never quite cohered into a whole. Beginning with a "Nacht" whose deep-dreaming strings could be felt as much as heard, Bychkov gave a sunrise that was oddly martial, nearly drowning the birdsong which had begun to lighten the orchestral darkness. The offstage hunting horns were splendid, evocative of the joy of unexpected human contact, and I especially liked the way in which the waterfall grew only gradually more audible out of the rushing of the brook. Even on thorny Irrwege, there were notes of optimism; only later came fear and vertigo. The repose after danger (like all Straussian repose?) of course gives rise to visions, a distillation of experience. The darkening of the sun begged the question: where is the line between glory and disaster? The dark, passionate elegy gave way to a quiet that balanced between beauty and foreboding. Although inevitable, the first thunderclap came with a shocking apparent suddenness, unleashing a storm that seemed to absorb time, having no foreseeable end. End it did, of course, in a sunset of luxurious beauty, with gorgeous strings and brass; so hypnotic was this beauty that the dying away of color into darkness (Ausklang) only gradually became ominous, and then decidedly unheimlich, as night descended once more. Even though I'm still puzzling over it, I'll welcome with open arms any orchestral performance that makes me think this much.

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