Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bonaparte blown apart.

Yet again, I went to go hear a new work only to have the program change at the last minute (this time, a piano quintet by Charles Wuorinen, whose music I don't know at all (and still don't)). That said, it was still a great concert thanks to the Brentano Quartet, who were also joined by Peter Serkin and Thomas Meglioranza for Schoenberg's Ode to Napoleon.

Maybe it's due to McClary's lecture, but I was acutely aware of the bodily engagement of both Mr. Serkin, who opened the evening with 4 transcriptions of Renaissance pieces) and the Quartet. All things are not equal, as it turns out. I don't know why, but the I found the stomping, half-singing, and face shaking at odds with a good performance. I've thrilled to see other pianists engage similarly, and the recordings of Glenn Gould singing along I find sort of charming. But here, the music didn't really seem suited to that much gestural action. Perhaps more to the point, I left those pieces with the sense not so much that the music was passionate, but simply that the pianist was. And there's a difference between them, where the expressions on Mr. Serkin's face told me more than the music did about how I was supposed to feel. It's almost like a movie where the acting style and dialogue are out of synch with each other. The Schoenberg came off quite effectively, satirical with just the right amount of bitter and sweet. Listening to that piece, while the baritone oration is wonderful (and the baritone brought every word to life), the real star of the composition is the instruments, employing a shimmering array of textures and ideas. It's a piece that leaves me both satisfied by the performance and luring me to know it better.

The second half—Haydn and Beethoven—may have been nothing distinct on paper, but the quartet really made both pieces absolutely riveting. The Haydn Quartet (Op. 76, no. 5) engages in the typical Haydn wit, veering off from expected cadences, revelling in those rich string harmonies, and zipping away through some rather buoyant themes. And Beethoven's Grosse Fuge is one of those towering pieces, dense and exhausting despite its small size, both in terms of length and quartetness. But as I watched, the quartet's near-perfect blending and razor-sharp rhythms brought to my mind, at least, the idea that what I was watching was not merely a concert, but bordering on a drama unfolding. The Haydn made me think of Tom Stoppard, actually- the unexpected witty diversions from what should be a straight-forward plot, sometimes touching on the darker side but never dwelling. The fourth movement in particular has some nice musical clashes between conflicting pedals and keys. If Haydn resembles sharp, intelligent comedy, the Grosse Fuge felt like an evening of David Mamet in its bitter intensity (far more than Schonberg, in fact). This is the mutual result of a often dissonant and unrelenting work played with more bodily energy and edgy sound than I've ever encountered before. The performers stomped and bent over assertively. The fugal theme sizzles and shrieks as lunges from instrument to instrument, yet despite the density, every rhythm and syllable was delivered with stinging exactness. The brawl between instruments is fun to watch, but even better were the quieter moments, which were even more intense and unsettling with a sort of mock-sweetness while all the unresolved tension just raised are left thickly hanging overhead while "niceness" takes hold briefly. I fidgeted a lot, but not out of the usual culprit (boredom). Rather, I was enjoying every uncomfortable, sweaty minute of the musical mêlée unfolding before me.


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