Hearing Familiar Music Anew

United StatesUnited States  Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Schumann: Christian Zacharias, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Pablo Heras Casado (conductor), Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage, Carnegie Hall, New York, 7.2.2013 (SSM)

Beethoven: Overture to Goethe’s Egmont, Op. 84
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21
Debussy: Five Préludes (orch. Hans Zender, 1991; US Premiere)
Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 120 (original version, 1841)

Pablo Heras Casado knows what he wants to get from his players, and he does so with authority, confidence and self-effacement. The opening work, Beethoven’s overture to the incidental music of Goethe’s Egmont, is one of a number of compositions that he wrote for a specific function. Unlike Mozart, who rarely differentiated between “personal” music and gebrauchsmusik, Beethoven could only be inspired if he felt the subject reflected his high standards or political beliefs. Hence, he left us with probably the largest collection of bombast by any major composer. Wellington‘s Victory (the so-called “Battle Symphony”), the overture and incidental music to King Stephen and music for mechanical clock do not show Beethoven in his best light.

Goethe’s Egmont is different. The story of a hero who gives his life for his country, it espouses themes of brotherhood and liberation from tyranny. Casado gave a vital and intense reading of the work, but it never sounded overplayed. A good orchestra and conductor have no need for super fortes to convey the composer’s intent: excitement and pleasure can be had through a more relaxed playing, and that was the case here. When the coda arrived with a crescendo that starts with a half measure rest followed by a fermata and a nearly audible passage marked ppp, we realized what magic Beethoven and Casado had spun.

In an earlier review I questioned Casado’s condoning of the decision to use a reproduction of an 1829 fortepiano for a performance by Kristian Bezuidenhout of Schumann’s 1849 Introduction and Allegro Appassionato (“Concertstück”). In fact, it would have made for an interesting performance if that instrument had been used here for Chopin’s second piano concerto. It’s far more likely that fortepianos were still in use in 1829 when Chopin wrote his concerto than in 1849 when Schumann wrote his work for piano and orchestra.

Christian Zacharias used the standard Carnegie Hall instrument of choice, the Steinway Model D. The Steinway is not the best piano for all types of music, but it served as an ideal instrument for Zacharias’s fleeting and lithe interpretation of Chopin. Here the soloist and conductor were perfectly matched. Chopin had a knowledge of every sound that a piano could produce, but this did not extend to instruments for the orchestra; Carado recognized this and deferred to Zacharias. Honestly, I don’t remember focusing visually or auditorily on Carado and the orchestra: the piano dominated and the orchestra served more as accompanist than as equal partner.

One never knows what to expect when one sees “orchestrated by” after a work’s title, and there is always Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky ‘s Pictures at an Exhibition as the standard against which other orchestrations are judged. Zender’s orchestration of five preludes from Debussy’s two books of preludes for piano, while not quite as imaginative as Ravel’s, holds its own kind of charm. As an orchestration goes, it is pretty much a note-by-note rewriting of the piano score. A chord or note marked sforzando is played by a percussive instrument, and glissandos are meted out to the harp. All five pieces were brightly and colorfully performed, aided by the bizarre sounds of several unusual instruments like the musical saw.

Listening to a different version of a work that one knows well is often an odd experience. For one thing, it makes you question whether you really know the music as well as you think you do. Sometimes an earlier version sounds superior to the standard version only because it adds interest to a work that has been heard too many times, and Schumann’s 1841 “original” version of his fourth symphony is a good example. The earlier version has a looser structure that seems closer to the heart than the later, more tightly constructed score. Both conductor and orchestra played ravishingly and succeeded in reinvigorating this old warhorse.

Stan Metzger