MM 2: What a Difference an Orchestra Makes

United StatesUnited States  Mostly Mozart 2: Beethoven: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 2.8.2012

Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major
Symphony No. 3 in E-fIat major (“Eroica”)

Beethoven, Haydn: Christiane Karg (soprano), Julie Boulianne (soprano),Toby Spence (tenor), Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone), Concert Chorale of New York,  James Bagwell (director), Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 3.8.2012, (SSM)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D major
Haydn: Missa (“Nelson Mass”)

These two back-to-back concerts had so much in common, the first one segueing so felicitously into the second, that it is irresistible not to review them together. The first concert ended with Beethoven’s Third Symphony and the second began with Beethoven’s Second Symphony. Both performances were conducted by the energetic Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Both orchestras received similar instructions from Mr. Nézet-Séguin: his body speedily changing positions, leaving no doubt as to what at any given moment each section of the orchestra should be doing. Sforzandi had the conductor punching the air or beating an imaginary kettle drum with both hands. Although neither orchestra was playing or attempting to emulate original instruments, Mr.Nézet-Séguin was clearly following the lead of Sir Roger Norrington whose tempi in his recordings of the Beethoven symphonies were based on the composer’s hyperkinetic metronome markings.

What was apparent though was the difference in quality between these two performances.

Granted, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra picked the short end of the stick, getting the Second Symphony instead of the Third: a general consensus would place the Second at the bottom and the Third somewhere near the top of the “Top Nine” list. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe also had the edge in being in a more intimate venue, but the problems with the second night went way beyond external issues to the heart of each orchestra. I can’t speak directly to the issue of rehearsal time, since I have no idea how much time each group committed to preparation; but it was more than apparent that the COE played, paradoxically, as if it they knew the piece by heart, yet were playing it for the first time. Like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, they perform without a conductor, requiring that each member handle those duties on his or her own. Like Abbados’s Lucerne Festival Orchestra, they are hand picked virtuosi in their own right.

The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, on the other hand, was lusterless. The opening Adagio of the Second was a dull affair. The transitional material between sections of the symphony were murky. The super-express tempi of the COE’s musicians that made for so much excitement, in the hands of the MMFO instrumentalists became no more than a race to get to the end as quickly as possible. Beethoven’s signature sforzandos – spiky thunderbolts that felt like electrical shocks – were mere thumps in the second concert. Even Nézet-Séguin’s reading of the Second Symphony Larghetto, here more like an Andante, couldn’t hide the orchestra’s lethargy.

The addition of a chorus for Haydn’s “Nelson Mass” did add an element of excitement to the second program, but balancing problems nagged many of the masses’ segments. Again, the question of rehearsal time comes to the forefront, since those hours are key to correcting unbalanced behavior. Only the tenor Toby Spence and the bass-baritone Andrew Foster Williams were able to push their voices past the middle of the theater. The quick tempi again caused some instrumentalists to come in too late or too early.

The first concert’s All-Beethoven program began with the Violin Concerto in D. This was a rock solid performance with no attempt to place the concerto it in any non-traditional context: no original instruments (e.g., Zehetmair, Brüggen) no radical cadenzas (Schnittke, Kremer), no overdubbing of the piano version (Kopatchinskaja, Herreweghe). Lisa Batiashvili’s cadenza, though, was not the traditional (Joachim’s) but the rather more difficult one by Fritz Kreisler. Here as in every other part of the concerto Batiashvili exuded confidence and an easygoing manner that contrasted successfully with Nézet-Seguin’s more frenetic conducting.

The COE has recorded the complete Beethoven Symphonies under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. At that time it was released in 1991, it was a revelation: Harnoncourt conducting a non-“historically-correct” performance applying his period theories to a more traditional orchestra. The result was so successful that most modern orchestras these days follow Harnoncourt’s guidelines for pre-20th century compositions: lessening vibrato and rubato, reducing orchestra size and even dropping the standard pitch down as much as a semitone. It might have been interesting to compare the live and recorded versions of the two symphonies, but this recording came out in 1991 and I doubt that few, if any, of the instrumentalists performing here would have been old enough to have participated in these earlier performances.

“Fun” might be too simple and overused a word to use in relation to these “heavy” masterpieces of music; but to call the first concert “fun” and the second “not fun” would not be unjust descriptors.

Stan Metzger