Haydn, Schubert and Ravel Open New York Philharmonic Spring Season

United StatesUnited States Haydn, Schubert, Ravel: Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo-soprano), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 28.12.2011 (SSM)

Haydn: Symphony No. 88 in G major (Hob. I:88)
Schubert: Six Orchestrated Songs:
Die Forelle (The Trout), D.550, (orch. Britten, date unknown)
Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), D.118, (orch. Reger, 1915)
lm Abendrot (In Evening’s Glow), D. 799, (orch. Reger, ca.1914)
Gesang “An Sylvia” (Song “To Sylvia”), D.891, (orch. Unknown; 1826)
Nacht und Träume (Night and Dreams), D.827, (orch. Reger, ca. 1914-15)
Erkönig (Erl King), D.328 (orch. Reger, date unknown)
Ravel:Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose), Complete Ballet
Ravel: La Valse

Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 falls into that nether space between the Paris Symphonies (82-87) and the London Symphonies (92-104). Somewhat of a hybrid work, it reveals elements of Haydn’s early- and middle-period styles while looking forward to the symphonies that follow. In some respects, it’s an early run-through of the popular “Surprise Symphony” No. 94: both are written in the same key, have the same instrumentation (except for doublings of the flute and oboes in the 88th) and surprise us with a totally unexpected dynamic jump from pp to ff with sforzando marked on the three beats. What is also unusual about this symphony is that both the first and second movements are each driven by only one theme. Haydn was such a master at this point in his career that he could take any motif and vary it enough to sustain interest in the entire movement.

However, there was a stodginess in the Philharmonic’s playing of this work that was resistant to Gilbert’s attempts to liven it up. Almost dancing at times, Gilbert was clearly looking for a spikiness in the heavily accented first movement. This was true as well in the musette-like trio of the third movement with its asymmetrical accents that lacked the punch of Haydn’s notated fortzandos. If I were more of a mystic I would almost think that the spirit of Leonard Bernstein (who recorded this symphony with the NYPO in 1963) conducted the final movement. Both conductors repressed the bouncing rhythms of the movement, opting instead for an old-fashioned smoothness in the strings.

The unusual orchestral transcriptions of several of Schubert’s popular songs brought to mind the vocal music of Mahler. Most were by Max Reger, a prolific composer, who published dozens of his own waltzes, songs and fantasies as well as transcriptions of works by Bach, Beethoven and Schubert. These scores were meant for home use or, in this case, small orchestras. He specifically avoided a heavy hand in the transcriptions of these songs, aiming for pieces “so simple that any orchestra can play them at sight.” He did accomplish his goal: the orchestration shimmers and glitters, coloring the singing but never drowning it. That these Schubert works are familiar was confirmed by the gentleman in back of me who, several notes into The Trout, loudly stated, “I know this song and I like it.” Anne Sofie von Otter has an obvious affinity for these pieces and sang them all regally, with authority and confidence. Only in To Sylvia could one question her dramatic gestures: she seemed to be expressing irony while singing words that do not appear to be ironic at all.

I’m not the best critic to write about the performance of Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye ballet suite: I’ve never found him of much interest except for his String Quartet. Perhaps this music is pleasant enough when used to accompany a ballet, but not having dancers to distract me, I found the thirty minutes insufferable. Certainly, it made his Boléroseem tolerable by comparison. La Valse was thematically catchy and rich in color, if somewhat clichéd in its deconstruction of the waltz. One only has to listen to Mahler’s many symphonic waltzes to understand the decadence inherent in this dance form.

Stan Metzger