Linking Strauss and Beethoven: Technique No Substitute for Meaning

United StatesUnited States R. Strauss, Shostakovich, Beethoven: Johannes Moser (cello), The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 21.2.2014 (DA)

R. Strauss: Metamorphosen
Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1 in E Flat Major, Op.107
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major, Op.55 “Eroica”


Beethoven has changed beyond recognition since Strauss memorialised him, and an entire culture with him, by quoting the funeral march of the “Eroica” symphony at the end of his Metamorphosen. The notes in the scores are still the same, of course, although with “urtext” editions even those have come into question. How those notes are played has changed completely, although there are some who keep the old flames alive. And what those notes mean, even the idea that they can have meaning, has been challenged, perhaps destroyed. Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but the Beethoven of Strauss’s generation reverberated beyond itself, even if never in a simple way. To hear (or at least write) that quotation then was to recognize, in pain, what had been lost to war. Now it has taken on an extra layer of loss as well.

 What might ordinarily be thought of as clever programming here turned, for me at least, into a marker for how great the disparity has become. If you’re going to put the “Eroica” and Metamorphosen on the same programme, you’d better be Wilhelm Furtwängler or, at the very least, make it clear that both mean something. Yet what once crushed—not least for Strauss himself—was here merely notable.

 Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his extraordinary orchestra played the “Eroica” with a technical commitment and involvement that is desperately rare on these shores. It was, by the standards of the day, a triumph. Not a moment passed by when Nézet-Séguin wasn’t doing something, moving somewhere, when there wasn’t a detail waiting to emerge, or be imposed. Vibrato disappeared for long periods in the funeral march, for no discernible reason. The scherzo was taken so fast that, alas, one the horns were under pressure enough that they sounded as if they might have been period instruments. The finale began rapidly and just got quicker: Beethoven-as-arsonist (a favourite ploy of a young conductor more often to be heard in this city) making himself busy as usual. In terms of structure, or more, there was little being said. Still, it was lively, full of zest, possessed of insatiable energy, tense in the short term, and especially in the outer movements, utterly thrilling.

 But speed does not equate to stakes, and in this case a raised heartbeat masked the feeling that the only risks involved were matters of technique. Compare Strauss’s own recordings of Beethoven (especially the Fifth), and the difference is stark. It wasn’t that this Beethoven didn’t mean a great deal. It was that the question itself wasn’t even up for grabs.

 So too with Metamorphosen. Strauss’s post-Wagnerian moral message is difficult to grapple with, let alone in comparison to that of Beethoven. As if only to underline how far we were from the Beethoven, Nézet-Séguin had his twenty-three players stand (awkwardly), filing on and off with him as a group. A message of community, perhaps? Who knows. Here again we were awash with details, slavishly underlined ever more with time, but that ear for what happened and will happen in the distance (what Furtwängler called Fernhören) was hard to discern. Balances on the whole worked well, but the sweetness of concertmaster David Kim’s violin often jarred so much that the sound picture resembled that of a concerto. Somehow it was still intense, especially in the agitato section in the middle, and yet the anguish so characteristic of this piece was held at arm’s length.

 What a difference a change of style and repertoire made. My first experience with Nézet-Séguin was in Shostakovich a little over a year ago, and his mania for the particular suits this composer well. So too with cellist Johannes Moser, a late replacement for Truls Mørk, who brought an aura of purpose as soon as he reached the stage. The first movement, simple and yet strikingly virtuosic, had a tangible sense of alarm to its stabbing chords and slashing movement. Nézet-Séguin brought out the distorted lyricism of the second movement achingly well, as did Moser with his heartfelt song. This piece only gets more difficult from there, but Moser, if not note-perfect, was more than a match, zipping through its caustic rhythms to a conclusion that swept him from his feet. At least in Shostakovich technical ability is enough.

David Allen