Strauss, Berio, Bartók

From the bizarrely philosophical to the just plain pleasantly bizarre: Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Vienna Philharmonic were sovereign at the Great Festival House this evening for a real head-scratcher of a program.

The first half consisted of Richard Strauss‘s tone poem Thus Spoke Zoroaster, based on Nietzsche.  The murky philosophy did not beget murky playing, as the Philharmonic picked apart every nuance, and Salonen drove them forward.  We had intimate chamber ensembles embedded inside the broad romantic swells, and delicate touches particularly from the concertmistress (yes, the Philharmonic has had a concertmistress for several years now, and she’s duly excellent).  When the sounds needed to get rough, they did, with agressive bowing and spikey winds.  In the end, Nietzsche’s World Riddle did not resolve itself (it’s not supposed to), which left us hanging through intermission.

Returning to the hall, the program only became more peculiar.  Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the series Folk Songs by Luciano Berio.  Several of them were not actual folk songs, but at least followed in the style.  Talented mezzosoprano Marianne Crebassa sang quite conventional song-like lines – Berio balanced the selection between the happy and the sad, but she remained always demonstrative – to which Berio added colorful backdrops from a chamber orchestra.  These were no ordinary accompaniments.  Berio seems to have taken some inspiration from composers who masterfully knew how to set folk songs.  I thought I heard traces that could have been influenced by Gustav Mahler, Aaron Copeland, Joseph Canteloube, and Father Komitas, although not necessarily corresponding to the songs a knowledgeable listener might expect to match those; then Berio took those traces and plopped them into a blender to make them unrecognizable.  The final product worked, as while they did not necessarily support the song’s simple music, they did underscore the song’s meaning.  This was delightful.  The songs were in various dialects of English, Armenian, French, Sicilian, Italian, Sardu, Occitan, and fake Azeri (I say “fake” for the last one, because Berio’s ex-wife transcribed the words from an old poor-quality recording which was hard to hear and she was Armenian-American and spoke no Azeri, so she had no idea what she was transcribing and wrote down jibberish – no one since the premiere in 1972 seems to have bothered to identify the original song in order to get the correct lyrics).

The concert concluded with the suite from Béla Bartók‘s Miraculous Mandarin.  In its day, this ballet caused as much of a stink as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had, both for its scandalous plot and its extreme music.  Unfortunately, unlike the Stravinsky work, it has not entered the mainstream repertory and is rather less-often performed, even in the abridged suite form we heard tonight.  That’s a shame.  Yes it is crazy – maybe like the odder moments of Richard Strauss’ Zarathustra gone even wilder (Bartók greatly admired that Strauss work).  There may even be some hints of Stravinsky.  The Philharmonic proved its supremacy, not just in the late romantic Fach but in the modern – what a terrific and versatile orchestra, full of drama and excitement.  Credit to Salonen too for putting it all together.

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