Saturday, March 12, 2011

Masur's Mendelssohn

And thus to last night's Mendelssohn program at San Francisco Symphony, where I'm sorry to tell you that the answer to my question was no, he did not take the first-movement repeat in the Italian Symphony. I just don't get it - this would add a big five or so minutes to the program, but it balances out the first movement and you get to hear some lovely music that you otherwise would not.

Joshua Kosman gave this concert a glowing review. I'm willing to bet that some things sounded better where he was sitting (I was once again under the overhang, this time in the last row of the orchestra), but my major complaint about the Italian has to do with tempos. Joshua hints at the speed of the first movement with "sacrificed a bit of momentum in favor of textural clarity," but I'll be blunt and say that it was just too slow. Yes, you did get to hear more detail than might have been audible at a faster tempo, but it was not only too slow, it was lacking in rhythmic sharpness and crackle. The last movement had a similar problem. It started out fast enough, then, I swear to you, it got slower. Oy. Both the movements lacked internal drive and, yes, momentum. The middle movements were fine; the minuet especially graceful.

Now, here I'd better confess that I grew up with Toscanini's recording of the Italian, a classic, and as you might guess, it is on the driven side. I also have the Mackerras, which has much of the speed and snap of the Toscanini while sounding less driven and more relaxed. Masur's performance had a certain softness to it that just didn't work for me, and it wasn't helped by poorer coordination of entries than is typical of the SFS. I will say that I was happy to hear scattered applause between some of the movements, though I wasn't pleased enough with the performance to join in myself.

I wonder how much the unusual seating arrangement had to do with the slightly messy entries. Masur had the flutes front and center, approximately where they would usually be, but with, at most, one row of violins or violas between him and the flutes. The oboes were to the audience right of the flutes, still on the floor. The other winds and brass were off the right on the risers, with the cellos in their usual places, so they were almost facing the flutes and oboes.

One aspect of the seating worked extremely well, though, and other conductors should take note of it: the basses were against the back wall, just off center, where the brass usually are. The bass lines were quite a bit more present and audible than they usually are, which helped the sound balance quite a lot. Masur used fewer than the full complement of violins, but with double winds and bass only, there were no problems hearing them . (In my experience, the violins are most likely to disappear under the onslaught of large wind and brass sections, perhaps a result of the poor acoustics of Davies.)

Now, the Overture and Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Overture was fine, though the first violin entry sounded weirdly scattered, with mostly lovely playing. Again, I would have liked a bit more snap to the playing.

For this performance, SFS chose to have an actor, Itay Tiran, as what they called a "narrator." Well, no, he was not a narrator: he didn't read a  summary of the plot as the performance progressed, he read, and acted, excerpts from the play. He did this extremely well, but I hope everyone in the audience was familiar with the play or had read the program notes very, very carefully. Otherwise, you'd never be able to figure out what was going on.

Looking at the score - yes, I happen to have a full score of A Midsummer Night's Dream hanging around - it looks as though the performance followed Mendelssohn's specifications fairly closely. I think they added some of the text from the play to the cues in the score - I can't find "The iron tongue of midnight hath tolled twelve," but I certainly heard it last night.

Now, I am sure lots of people in the audience loved this. It didn't work so well for me. I mostly found it distracting, because I was there to hear a musical performance. Yes, I'd love to see the play with the incidental music played in place! but this performance was not that.

The San Francisco Girls Chorus was on hand for the two choral numbers, with soprano Susannah Biller and mezzo Maya Lahyani taking the solos. The chorus sounded lovely, just right and with very good diction. I was actually shocked by how bad Biller sounded; her phrasing was clumsy, her voice thin, and she sounded squawky in register changes. Lahyani sounded fine.

Biller and Lahyani were placed behind the narrator toward the back of the stage, and I just don't understand why. I think they were amplified, always a bad idea; I have an inquiry out to SFS about this. Update, 3/14: SFS tells me they were not amplified. Biller sounded lousy on her own, in other words.

So, a mixed bag of an evening! And I think it might be the last time I sit under the damn overhang.


Evan Tucker said...

I used to think that the Italian Symphony should go faster in the first movement too. But then I heard this Sicillian Tarantella.

Something like a tarantella rhythm goes, in some sense, all the way through the movement. I wonder though, did Mendelssohn mean for the movement to sound like a tarantella. And moreover, did he mean for it to sound like this tarantella?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Who knows? Did he get to Sicily on his trip to Italy?

The score is marked Allegro Vivace, which is presumably slower than the last movement's Presto. Be interesting to see various conductors' tempo choices.

sfmike said...

I agree with just about every word you've written, except the bit about Itay Tiran, the Narrator: "He read, and acted, excerpts from the play. He did this extremely well." Actually, I thought he was godawful, and his "funny voices" variations for the different characters sounded like junior high school, especially Puck. I was tempted to flee during the whole performance, but it would have been too rude.

And by the way, it wasn't your lousy overhang seats that were the problem. It really was a sluggish performance. The only part of the evening this old curmudgeon loved unreservedly was the Girls Chorus, who sang for all of about four minutes.

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

I just don't get it - this would add a big five or so minutes to the program

It is regrettable, yes.

It also ticks me off when conductors fail to take the repeats in the first movement of Schubert's Ninth Symphony (the great C-Major).

(Or the final movement for that matter)

Lisa Hirsch said...

Those repeats aren't very long, but I have to admit, you would have to tie me down to get me to sit through the Great C Major again.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Mike, thanks; I am GLAD I was not the only person who heard the program that way.

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

Those repeats aren't very long, but I have to admit, you would have to tie me down to get me to sit through the Great C Major again.

Surprising to read this, Lisa.

I was always under the impression that Schubert's final symphony was universally beloved. It is definitely one of my all time favorite pieces of music.

Schumann was absolutely spot on when he hailed the symphony, I think:

Here, beside sheer musical mastery of the technique of composition is life in every fiber, color in the finest shadings, meaning everywhere, the acutest etching of detail, and all flooded with a Romanticism which we have encountered elsewhere in Franz Schubert. And this heavenly length, like a fat novel in four volumes by Jean Paul—never-ending, and if only that the reader may go on creating in the same vein afterwards. . . . It is still evidence of an extraordinary talent that he who heard so little of his own instrumental work during his lifetime could achieve such an idiomatic treatment both of individual instruments and of the whole orchestra, securing an effect as of human voices and chorus in discourse. . . . The brilliance and novelty of the instrumentation, the breadth and expanse of the form, the striking changes of mood, the whole new world into which we are transported—all this may be confusing to the listener, like any initial view of the unfamiliar. But there remains a lovely aftertaste, like that which we experience at the conclusion of a play about fairies or magic. There is always the feeling that the composer knew exactly what he wanted to say and how to say it, and the assurance that the gist will become clearer with time...


Oh well... de gustibus non est disputandum.

Lisa Hirsch said...

It's extremely long, on the repetitive side, and tends to get performances that are too damn ponderous. Schubert pushed limits a lot and usually succeeds (see the C major string quintet, for example), but the Great C Major and the Wanderer Fantasy are among my least favorite of his works.

I have and like Mackerras's recording here someplace, but let's just say that it's very, very low on the list of pieces I put on for the fun of it.

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

It's extremely long, on the repetitive side


May I take my turn and express an unpopular opinion?

While I've enjoyed Stravinky's Sacre on and off over the years it ultimately strikes me as a thoroughly obnoxious, hammy, clunky racket that maintains its prominence really as an egregious period piece.... An entirely dated period piece.

I know this opinion makes me 'dead meat' among the musical establishment but I don't care.


(see the C major string quintet, for example)

Needless to say, Schubert's quintet is divine.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Why do you think it's a period piece? Its influence continues to be felt to this day, and it sounds as fresh as the day it was written to plenty of people.

calimac said...

Kosman went, as I did, on Thursday. You went on Saturday. Maybe they really were different. "Slow" is about the last word I'd think to apply to the "Italian" I heard.

calimac said...

And I'm with Schumann on the Great C Major. It is repetitious, and it could go on being repetitious forever as far as I'm concerned.

Le Sacre is still exciting, though in some performances it feels like it goes on too long. The Stravinsky work I could do without is L'histoire du soldat.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I was actually there Friday, and I am sure the two performances differed, but see Joshua's remarks about the vigor or speed of the first movement.

calimac said...

It had more clarity than momentum, yes, but too slow? Lacking in sharpness and crackle? Surely not as I heard it.