Germany Aaron Copland, Morton Feldman and Charles Ives: Emanuel Ax (piano), Ernst Senff Choir, London Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas, Philharmonie, Berlin, 6.9.2012 (MC)
Aaron Copland – Orchestral Variations (1957)
Morton Feldman – Piano and Orchestra (1975)
Charles Ives – A Symphony: New England Holidays(1904/13)
As one might expect, San Francisco born Michael Tilson Thomas, the principal guest conductor of the visiting London Symphony Orchestra, brought with him to Berlin a package of American Music. The Berlin public didn’t seem attracted to the unfamiliar programme as sadly the Philharmonie seemed to be only half full. This situation will inevitably happen unless the pill is sweetened by including a well-known work alongside the more unfamiliar ones.
The first work of the evening was the Orchestral Variations from Aaron Copland born and bred in Brooklyn, New York City. This rarely played work certainly deserves to be programmed far more often than it currently is in the concert hall. From the audience reaction to the work I’m sure it will be regarded as a real discovery for the vast majority who were probably hearing it for the first time. In 1930 Copland wrote his Piano Variations a product of his abstract period in which he concentrated on writing instrumental music. Over twenty-five years later in 1957 to fulfill a commission Copland revisited his solo piano score preparing from it an orchestral transcription entitled Orchestral Variations. Copland has created a harmonically astringent work for large orchestra which owing to its origins as a piano score is, not surprisingly, rather percussive in style. Taking around twelve minutes to perform the Orchestral Variations is a work of real substance, an orchestral showpiece with much in its content to attract the listener. Making a real impact right from the opening pages the orchestra revealed this as a work of raw power and energy. Full of angular rhythms it was not too difficult to hear suggestions of the soundworld from some of Copland’s more famous scores such as Rodeo and Appalachian Spring. As soon as all the strings became involved I was immediately struck by how marvellously the section was playing revealing a full and striking timbre. The London brass and woodwind sounded magnificent too and the five percussionists contributed with an array of fascinating sounds.
Experimental and iconoclastic composer Brooklyn born Morton Feldman was represented by his rarely heard score Piano and Orchestra from 1975. Tilson Thomas must rate the work highly as he has programmed it with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and New World Symphony. The twenty-three minute long Piano and Orchestra is anything but a traditional concerto with the title describing the two separate forces Feldman uses in the work. In the 1970s, Feldman’s middle period, he wrote 5 other works for different solo instruments and orchestra. Piano and Orchestra is a generally quiet and meditative work full of mystery with spare use of the orchestra. A work rather dominated by the impeccable strings often the music almost stands still; however, when angry episodes do occur they explode like a shots from a cannon. Overall it felt as if Feldman’s musical landscape was depicting the still of the night with the peace interrupted only by the occasional movement of a predatory animal. As for the piano writing, repeated single notes and chords appear sparingly, subtly and contemplatively with the tranquility of the instrument at rest seemingly just as important. Owing to the simplistic nature of the piano part one wonders why it was necessary to go to the expense of engaging an international concert pianist of the calibre of Emanuel Ax.
When a friend saw that Charles Ives’ A Symphony: New England Holidays was in the Berlin programme he advised that I shouldn’t forget my earplugs – and he certainly wasn’t wrong. Maverick New England born composer Ives went his own way and was certainly not afraid of experimentation with his music predating many of the twentieth century innovations. With its multilayered, highly colourful canvasses of sound New England Holidays is Ives at his most typical, drawing on traditional folk songs, parlour ballads, hymn tunes, competing marching military bands, raucous country barn dances etc. Each of the four movements – entitled Washington’s Birthday; Decoration Day; The Fourth of July and Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day – coincide with the four seasons of the year. Tilson Thomas and the LSO demonstrated that they had the measure of Ives’s clashing harmonies and dissonances, and the sharp variances of weight and volume. A rousing and highly impressive rendition of the Thanksgiving hymn ‘O God beneath Thy guiding hand’ from the Ernst Senff Choir was the icing on the cake. A rather surprising choice but a welcome one was the encore that Tilson Thomas selected for this ‘all American’ programme was the barnstorming finale from Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell.