Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sex and Violins

[This is the text of my review for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert of Friday, February 16th, 2007 for public radio station KDHX-FM in St. Louis.]

As David Robertson pointed out during his comments to the audience at this Friday's thoroughly captivating St. Louis Symphony concert, one of the little-known links between the three Russian romantic composers on the program (Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin) is that all three were involved, around the turn of the previous century, in a debate on synaesthesia.

To the psychologist or neurologist, synaesthesia is rare and somewhat mysterious condition in which (to quote the U.K. Synaesthesia Association) “two or more of the five senses that are normally experienced separately are involuntarily and automatically joined together”. Synaesthetes might head sounds when reading certain words, or see colors when they hear certain sounds or musical notes. It's not generally regarded as a pathological condition and, in fact, many synaesthetes regard it as life enhancing.

For Alexander Scriabin and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the association of specific colors with certain musical keys was a fact of life, even if they disagreed strongly as to which keys were associated with which colors. For Scriabin, this was also an integral part of what Paul Schiavo describes in his program notes as “an elaborate personal philosophy that combined art, religion and eroticism in a quest for enlightenment” - a philosophy expressed most vividly in his Poem of Ecstasy (a.k.a. his Symphony No. 4), which concluded this weekend's concerts.

Composed between 1905 and 1907, when the composer was actively involved with the Theosophical Society (and, not incidentally, pursuing one of his many extramarital affairs), the work is accompanied by a long series of verses by Scriabin, ending with: “I am a moment illuminating eternity....I am affirmation...I am ecstasy." Although scored for an orchestra of (Richard) Straussian proportions, including a massive brass section, two harps and an organ, the Poem has sections of great lyricism and transparency that are reminiscent of the French impressionists. They contrast nicely with the rock concert-level sound of the more climactic moments.

Robertson and the symphony musicians delivered a stunning performance of this complex and difficult music. Both the intimacy and exuberance of the music were given full measure, and the work as a whole never lost the underlying sense of tension that finds its final release in the massive full-orchestra climax and brief C-major coda.

Most commentators, by the way, have been a bit coy about the exact kind of ecstasy the composer had in mind with this lush, unabashedly romantic work, but Scriabin biographer Faubion Bowers, referring to the 300+ lines of verse that accompany the score, concludes that “behind this distillation of Scriabin's world-view there was something blunt - sex.” I have to agree. With the ebb and flow between states of languor and near-hallucinatory excess and its rather orgasmic coda (the piece was, after all, originally titled Orgiastic Poem), Scriabin's Poem is probably one of the more R-rated pieces in the repertory.

Sex plays a rather more indirect role in Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Le Coq d'or (The Golden Cockerel). Composed near the end of the composer's life and not performed until after his death, the opera is the story of the bumbling King Dodon who is so smitten with the beautiful Queen Chimaka (part of the spoils of his war) that he double-crosses a wizard - with predictably fatal results. The Le Coq d'or Suite, which opened the second half of this weekend's program, is a classic example of the composer's melodic inventiveness and orchestral ingenuity. A recurring melismatic and vaguely Middle Eastern theme helps to establish the fairy tale atmosphere, for example, and the courtship dance for Dodon and Chimaka covers some of the same territory as Scriabin's Poem, albeit somewhat more discreetly. The finale, in which Dodon's increasingly pompous wedding procession is interrupted by the return of the vengeful sorcerer, brings it all to a rousing conclusion with a riot of orchestral color.

It has been over 35 years since the St. Louis Symphony performed the Le Coq d'or Suite, but you wouldn't know that from the brilliant and polished reading it got Friday morning. Although it calls for orchestra forces nearly as great as those in the Poem, the suite offers many opportunities for solo instruments to shine - and shine they did. It's a reminder that the orchestra these days is truly an ensemble of virtuosi.

Solo virtuosity was on display in the first work on the program, the Piano Concerto No. 1 of Sergei Rachmaninoff. A contemporary of Scriabin and friend to both him and Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff is now known as one of the last of the great Romantic pianist-composers. Originally written while both he and Scriabin were students at the Moscow Conservatory, the Concerto was later revised substantially on the eve of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and it's not hard to hear the faint echoes of that turbulence in the sweep and drama of this. Piano soloist Stephen Hough played with the ease and confidence that are the hallmarks of solid keyboard technique, and showed a rapport with Robertson that one of the hallmarks of the accomplished musician.

Next at Powell Hall: Mozart, J.C. Bach and Frank Martin with Jeffrey Kahane as conductor and piano soloist, Friday through Sunday, February 23rd through 25th, 2007. For ticket information, call 314-534-1700 or visit the Symphony web site at slso.org.

No comments: