Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Unfinished buisness

Christine Brewer
Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson with soprano Christine Brewer and baritone Lucas Meachem
What: Music of Suppé, Schubert, and Zemlinsky
Where: Powell Symphony Hall
When: May 3-5, 2013

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Every now and then the most publicized event in a symphony concert turns out not to be the one that leaves the greatest impression. This weekend all the fuss was about the local premiere of Alexander Zemlinsky’s lavishly scored and slightly exotic Lyrische Symphonie (Lyric Symphony) Op. 18 (1922-23) with baritone Lucas Meachem and local favorite soprano Christine Brewer. For me, though, the real highlight of the program was Maestro David Robertson’s highly charged version of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 (“Unfinished”) from a century earlier.

Don’t get me wrong. I thought the Zemlinsky was pretty compelling stuff, but it was the Schubert that was genuinely moving. From the urgent opening theme on the cellos and basses to the final, resigned sighs from the strings and winds, this was a deeply-felt “Unfinished”, filled with high drama and pathos, emotionally overwhelming, and beautifully played. The development section of the first movement was particularly intense, with Mr. Robertson (working without a score) giving it the “full body conducting” treatment, and those big organ-like chords from the winds in the second movement have never sounded better. I haven’t heard a Powell Hall performance of the “Unfinished” with this kind of power since Leonard Slatkin’s days as music director. I don’t know whether or not Mahler ever conducted the “Unfinished”, but if he did I think it might have sounded like this one.

Did Schubert really mean to leave his eighth symphony as a two-movement work? It would be unusual (not to say radical) if he did, and surviving sketches of the first part of a scherzo suggest he planned to give it the conventional four movements. Many composers have even tried to complete it for him. If the attempts I’ve heard are typical, the results have been mixed at best. As it stands, the two movements balance each other so perfectly that it’s hard to see how Schubert could have improved upon it, especially when performed with the kind of conviction I heard Sunday afternoon.

Lucas Meachem
But let’s get back to what was, for many, the Main Event. But let’s get back to what was, for many, the Main Event. Although proscribed by the Nazis and then dismissed as hopelessly old-fashioned in the years after World War II, Alexander Zemlinksy was, by all accounts, a composer of prodigious technique and imagination as well as a highly regarded conductor, especially in the opera house. As Paul Schiavo points out in his program notes, Zemlinsky described himself as “a man of the theater”, composing seven operas along with a ballet and incidental music for Shakespeare’s rarely performed Cymbeline. You can hear that in the Lyric Symphony, which consists of seven settings of poems from The Gardener by the Nobel Prize-winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. The songs are linked by orchestral interludes and played without pause, resulting in a dramatic progression from (to quote Mr. Schiavo again) “yearning and desire to a peak of romantic union, then on to the bittersweet inevitability of parting.”

Or, to quote an Irving Berlin lyric from just two years before Zemlinsky’s composition, “After You Get What You Want You Don’t Want It.”

Alexander Zemlinsky
This is really rather impressive music. Zemlinksy combines opulent and colorful orchestration—it calls for a typically massive, stage-filling post-Wagnerian ensemble and uses it creatively—with an almost Classical sense of organization. Each of the soloists gets a song of longing, a song of fulfillment, and a song parting, after which the baritone wraps it all up with “Friede, Mein Herz” (“Peace, My Heart”), which suggests the kind of calm resignation one hears at the end of the Schubert “Unfinished.” The orchestral interludes smoothly manage the transitions between songs, and there’s even a bit of “cyclic form” with the “yearning” motif that opens the work returning, transformed, in the instrumental postlude.

Ms. Brewer and Mr. Meachem both have substantial operatic experience, so it’s not surprise that their performances captured the full emotional range of the songs. They both worked from scores (although Mr. Meachem seemed to refer to his less often), but I never had the sense that they weren’t fully in command of their roles.

Mr. Meachem impressed me with his musical and dramatic skills the last time he sang with the symphony (in their May 2008 Carmina Burana) and he did so again Sunday. Ms. Brewer’s voice was strong and clear as usual and, like Mr. Meachem, she was fully in command of the text. Mr. Robertson held Zemlinsky’s big, complex infrastructure together nicely and the musicians performed with their customary skill. There was some exceptionally fine playing from the horns, most notably in the third song, “Du Bist die Abendwolke” (“You Are the Evening Cloud”) and a lovely violin and cello duet for Concertmaster David Halen and Principal Cello Daniel Lee leading into the fourth song.

The concert opened with an appropriately smile-inducing performance of Franz von Suppé’s overture for the 1844 farce Ein Morgen, Mittag und Abend in Wien (Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna), featuring a lovely solo from Mr. Lee. It’s part of a collection of incidental music for the play, none of which is ever heard these days.

Suppé is a classic example of the composer who achieved fame and fortune in his lifetime, only to slide into obscurity afterwards. Although he wrote thirty operettas and hundreds of other works, mostly for the stage, Suppé is represented these days almost entirely by a handful of overtures—at least on this side of the Atlantic. Some of his operas still see the light of day in Europe, particularly in his native Austria. Fortunately his Requiem and some of his stage works are available on CD for those curious as to what the rest of his music sounds like.

Next on the calendar: David Robertson concludes the regular concert season May 9-12 with an unusual musical mix: Bruckner’s motet Christus Factus Est, Act III of Berg’s disturbing Wozzeck, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Soloists are Susanna Phillips, soprano; Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano; Joseph Kaiser, tenor; and Corey McKern, baritone. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3. For ticket information: stlsymphony.org.

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