Lutosławski, Tschaikowsky, Prokofiev
From the works on the program, I had considered not buying a ticket to tonight’s concert at the Festival. But curiosity to hear the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck (whom I have heard before, but never with his own orchestra) pulled me in. The first half of the program included some experimental works (better in theory than in practice) by Witold Lutosławski and the second had Piotr Tschaikowsky‘s over-played Sixth Symphony.
Lutosławski tried out something he called “chain form” music, where subjects start before the previous ones end, linking them together in a chain (including across movements). Tonight we had one such experiment, in triptych – finishing with Chain 2 – a “Dialogue for Violin and Orchestra” premiered in 1986 – to which in 1990 he appended onto the front the other two works in the triptych: first the Partita for Violin and Orchestra (and Obligatory Piano) and second the Interlude for Orchestra. At times the music actually was quite fascinating. The problem was that as soon as we could enjoy these sections, they were overcome by the next link in the chain. The 1986 work Chain 2 was far better and made the point the composer was trying to make – and if he had left it at that, then this whole experiment might have been relatively successful. But adding the other two pieces to the front made this a maddening 45 minutes or so.
Under these circumstances, it was hard to judge the orchestra itself. I suppose they made it through the work OK, and therefore should be commended. Did they sound good? I think so, maybe. I was spending too much time trying to understand the music to contemplate if the orchestra performed well. Certainly, though, the soloist, Anne-Sophie Mutter did, with a full sound and great versatility. She also gave the premiere of this stuff, so I suppose she would know it well and it helped.
The Tschaikowsky at least allowed us a chance to evaluate the orchestra itself. It’s hard to say something new with Tschaikowsky. He wrote nice music, but it was often too westernized – usually not authentically Russian enough to be Russian and not quite as good as real westerners wrote (so neither here nor there, really, but somehow seemingly on so many concert programs that I am trying to cut down my Tschaikowsky intake). But he had his manias, and a sense of the psychodramatic (some of his authentic Russian works – mostly earlier works – are quite good but less-performed; his operas set as psychodramas work better than anything with action).
It is possible to say something new with an imaginative interpretation. And that is exactly what Honeck did tonight – practically re-interpreting Tschaikowsky through a Mahlerian lense.
A few nights ago I watched a video which included some scenes of Valery Gergiev rehearsing Mahler’s Fifth, in which Gergiev described to the orchestra that they should perform it as though they were playing on a ship in the middle of the ocean, with huge swells making them sway back and forth while keeping them off-balance, and every so often having an enormous wave crash across their bow. That analogy would have worked for Honeck’s reading of Tschaikowsky’s Sixth tonight. This was an angst-ridden performance – although the theory that Tschaikowsky committed suicide nine days after the premiere of this symphony is not widely accepted, certainly if this had been the amount of angst consuming him then maybe he would have.
The orchestra handled this very well – Honeck has served chief there since 2008, so they know him and respond. The ensemble playing therefore got it. Unfortunately, the exposed lines stood out: this is a second-tier American orchestra, lacking the virtuosity of a top-level band. While the whole sound was good, the individual instruments did not rise to the solo lines. This came in stark contrast considering last night’s performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, where each individual line was to savor.
We did get to enjoy two encores, both ballet music. The first I did not quite place, but it sounded like Tschaikowsky and had a nice little lilt. Of greater spectacle, next came a couple of sections from Prokofiev‘s Romeo and Juliet. This was authentically Russian in a way Tschaikowsky was generally not, and brash and modern in ways that Lutosławski would have done well to emulate (the whole Prokofiev ballet is long but never gets dull – that might have been a much more exciting programmatic choice, but I’ll take the snippets as an encore).