Mystery score

Mystery score

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Beethoven, Webern, and Hartmann at the SF Symphony

To the San Francisco Symphony last night, with my friend Mike, for a concert of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor"), Webern's Passacaglia, Op. 1., and Karl Amadeus Hartmann's Sixth Symphony. The draw was primarily the Hartmann, after Jeff Dunn, who also reviews for SFCV, told me it was one of the most profound works of the 20th centry.

It's an intense and complicated piece, for a very big orchestra; too much for me to describe with much accuracy after only one hearing. But I liked it a lot, and I'll be getting some Hartmann for my collection, for sure, and looking forward to future performances of his works.

The Webern's a magnificent work, and something of an apotheosis of late Romanticism, with hints of Mahler, Strauss, and, in the gauzy textures and underestated moments, Debussy. And you can hear some hints of what he'd become in a few years.

I wish the Symphony had just played both of those pieces twice and skipped the Beethoven. The "Emperor" had nothing at all in common with them and, like the concert pairing John Adams's Naive and Sentimental Music with the Beethoven violin concerto, felt like the draw for attendees who might be scared by a program consisting only of 20th century music.

Worse, unlike the violin concerto, the piano concerto got a wretched performance. The soloist, Garrick Ohlsson, wreaked havoc on it, in league with a Fazioli piano I hope never to hear again. Joshua Kosman's review is right on - if anything, he was too kind to Ohlsson. Sure, the piano was so loud as to be suitable only for the Hollywood Bowl or the Royal Albert Hall. I've never before thought a piano concerto would have sounded better with the lid closed all the way. The piano's tone was ugly and it seemed nearly impossible to play the thing at less than about forte.

Still, the shapless, flubbed runs, dull phrasing, almost complete lack of rubato, and inability to take command of the music were entirely Ohlsson's fault. There was no poetry in the second movement and no magic in the transition from the second to the third movement. Ohlsson also managed to play the whole concerto very loudly but without much of a sense of command.

It was a poor performance, and it wasn't even an interesting poor performance. It was just plain boring.

I am dismayed to report that Ohlsson got a standing ovation from about a quarter to a third of the audience anyway, as Mike and sat on our hands and glared a lot. I don't know what to make of this. Were they fans of Ohlsson who'll applaud anything he does? Were they all insufficiently familiar with the piece to be able to tell a good performance from a bad one? Were they just impressed by the piano's volume and Ohlsson's ability to play pretty much all of the notes of a very difficult work? (And why were so many orchestra members showing approval? Maybe it sounded better if you were behind the piano?)

Sigh. And see my next blog posting ("Dear Alex and Greg") for an issue raised by the whole experience.

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