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SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL REPORT
Tōru Takemitsu Green
Richard Strauss Vier letzte Lieder (Four
Sergei Prokoviev Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100
Death and its precursor old age were both the explicit and implicit themes in Monday night's performance by the NHK Orchestra of Japan at Carnegie Hall. Add to this program Tuesday night's performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor performed by Bach Collegium Japan, and one wonders who had the prescience to program two nights of such funereal aptness. In a speech before the concert, Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall's artistic director, offered condolences to the victims of both the Japanese and New Zealand devastations. André Previn conducted an unprogrammed performance of Bach's Air from the Orchestral Suite No. 3. Upon its conclusion, the audience was respectfully sensitive enough not to applaud.
We can understand the correlation between old age and Strauss's last songs, written a year before his death and not played until a year later, but this concert presented other, more sensitive issues related to old age. The eighty-one-year-old André Previn was in terrible shape, hunched over with a cane to help him walk, seated while conducting, and giving only the barest of gestures (reminiscent of Fritz Reiner's non-gesturing normal style of conducting with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). One might think that his ability to impart his vision of the works performed here would be impaired by his frailties, and this was indeed the case with Strauss's wonderful Vier letzte Lieder. There was barely, if any, eye contact between Previn and the soloist, the visually, if no longer vocally, stunning and elegant Kiri Te Kawana. It was a major accomplishment that both the conductor and the soloist were able to start and end at the same time.
I have to admit that I may not be an unbiased reviewer of Strauss's "Last Songs." I consider myself fairly calm and rational, but I become effusive every time I hear these songs. The famous violin solo in "Beim Schlafengehen" followed by the soprano's entrance with " Und die Seelen unbewacht" is one of the most moving moments in Western music. It was sad to hear little more than a semblance of Ms. Te Kanawa's voice singing these songs. Her inability to project, so that she could be heard past the middle rows of the hall, was not helped by Mr. Previn's dynamic insensitivity to her vocal weakness. One can still hear glints of her glorious instrument, and her emotional connection to the music was clear, but listening to her 1979 recording with Andrew Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra of these songs only serves to demonstrate what has been lost in the intervening thirty-plus years.
Previn fared better with Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. With an orchestra as colorful as the NHK, it would be hard not to draw a vivid performance from the instrumentalists. At times, particularly in the first movement, the strings were almost too lush, not giving the other instrumental groups enough room to toot their horns, so to speak. The tempo of this movement was also a little too close to an Adagio than to the Andante it is. The spirited, inebriated second movement, a percussionist's dream (or nightmare), went better. Previn was able here to keep the restless pulse continually beating throughout while the strings played some of Prokofiev's catchiest tunes. The opening theme is one of the few melodies from this composer that after a few hearings get stuck in a groove of your brain. The lyric third movement does not stay lyrical very long, moving back and forth between intense crescendos and quiet, offbeat waltz-like phrases. The final movement starts as if it was going to be a repeat of the first, but quickly moves to the marked tempo's descriptor, giacoso: an accurate adjective for a movement chock full of satiric circus ditties. The main theme itself ends with what clearly is a hee-hawing donkey bray. The symphony moves towards its end like a whirlwind, the braying still going on in the background, slowing down for only a second before concluding with a bang. This work's final few minutes provide an ideal showcase for an orchestra like the NKH to demonstrate its capabilities, and it admirably did so here.
A quick mention should be given to the opening work by Tōru Takemitsu: a brief, pleasant, if uninspired few minutes of ersatz late impressionism, sounding as if it were stolen from the early borderline tonal works of Schoenberg.
Louis Armstrong once said that "musicians don't retire; they stop when there is no more music in them." This was a well-intentioned program hampered by two musicians who clearly have more music in them but no longer are at their best in a large concert hall.