Kancheli, Ledenëv, Mahler

It is so wonderful to have the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory open again after it had been closed for an entire year.  The acoustics may be second only to the Tonhalle in Zurich.  I went back for my second concert since it reopened, to hear the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra under its longtime music director Vladimir Fedoseyev.

The first half of the concert featured two recently-composed pieces I knew nothing about.  I wanted to know more, but for some reason understood only by Russians, who must be used to this nonsense, they hid the programs.  I kept trying to buy a program from the ushers (the normal way to get a program in this hall), but the ushers kept sending me to other ushers around and around in circles.  I saw a small handful of people who obviously managed to convince someone to sell them a program, but it really seemed like someone must have been hoarding them.  So I heard the first half of the concert without a program, and then set out during the intermission determined to find one.  Eventually, climbing up to the upper balcony, I found one usher sitting on a bench with a pile of programs hidden under her coat.  She reluctantly sold me one (for a discount price of 30 Rubles – usually they cost 50 Rubles).  I have no good explanation for why it was so much trouble to get a program for this concert, but I don’t have a good explanation for a lot of what goes on in this country.

The concert opened with the world premiere of “Last Flight” (Three Symphonic Fragments) by Roman Ledenëv, a professor of music theory at the Conservatory who was present in the audience.  According to the program, he wrote the piece in 2009 in memory of a colleague who had died in a plane crash.  The piece started out sounding like it might be atonal, but gradually the bits and pieces of the orchestra fell into place together to create a mood similar to a Mahler adagio – sort of like a mirror un-shattering, with the pieces rising up off the floor and reassembling on the wall.  Scored for string orchestra and percussion, the balance seemed (unsurprisingly, perhaps, given where Ledenëv teaches) designed for this very hall, with waves of lush strings accented by gentle percussion rolling over the audience.

The next piece was a bit of a mystery, which finally getting a program only partly resolved.  Gia Kancheli is a Georgian composer who left his country during the brutal Civil War, and eventually settled in Belgium.  “Do Not Be Sad” (which he calls a vocal-symphonic suite for baritone and orchestra) may not have made me sad, but it did make me thoroughly confused.  Kancheli is normally known for his sonorous post-romantic tone poetry.  This seemed like a parody of his own style, but was clearly supposed to be taken seriously.

The baritone started out singing in what I thought was Russian.  Then it seemed to be Russian-accented English.  As I tried desperately to understand the words, I clearly heard German.  I thought I caught some other languages as well.  These seemed to be coming in isolated phrases, not necessarily connected to each other.  Since I could not decipher what the piece was about from the words, which were by this point distracting me more than anything, I tuned out the words and started paying closer attention to the music.  This made about as much sense as the words.  Phrases changing in tempo, volume, mood, and instrumentation, all over the place, having little to do with each other.  Several times, the piece seemed to have reached a climax, and Fedoseyev lowered his baton, but the music continued.  When the piece actually did end, eventually, it did so in mid-phrase without resolution.

Getting the program only helped a little.  Kancheli apparently wrote the piece after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, trying to make sense of everything.  I’m not sure he succeeded.  Baritone Egils Silins tried his best, with a very dramatic reading.  The orchestra also sounded good, at least.

After the intermission, I did not require a program for Mahler’s 1st.  As I have said before, I like the way Russian orchestras sound when they play Mahler, since they give it an edge that accentuates the angst.  That said, I think the 1st Symphony is less suited to this sort of sound, since it is perhaps the most cheerful of his works.  Nevertheless, Mahler being Mahler, a degree of tension must exist, and the Russian sound brings it out.  Clearly, however, this orchestra was less-familiar with the work, as Fedoseyev (who spent some time as principal conductor of the Vienna Symphony) must surely know it.  As a result, Fedoseyev took a more precise approach, allowing the orchestra to be careful, which may have broken up some of the lines in return for actually getting the music out.  Nevertheless, the orchestra often sounded unsure.

Where this performance came off best, however, were during the opening of the third movement – with its slow crescendo as the orchestra plays a mutilated minor-key Frere Jacques, which in this performance slowly filled the hall and almost snuck up on the listener – and the final movement.  In the final movement, Fedoseyev accented the streaking strings and the twisted woodwinds over the brash brass, but then introduced an apocalyptic percussion.

That said, perhaps the only way to make Mahler’s 1st work using a Russian sound would be to emulate Kirill Kondrashin, the conductor who more than anyone introduced Mahler’s music to Russia.  I have a recording of Kondrashin leading this symphony, where he does get the right amount of angst and foreboding behind Mahler’s lilting melodies.  Of course, Kondrashin’s career also ended with a performance of Mahler’s 1st, which resulted in his death from a heart attack.  So, I suppose, no, we do not want anyone else to go that route.

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