Sunday, March 26, 2023

California Symphony: Zemlinsky, A. Mahler, Rott

I told a friend I saw at today's California Symphony concert that I wasn't going to blog about it, but I have changed my mind.

It was the kind of program that I love to see: music I've never heard before, by three interesting composers. As it turns out, one of them, occupying well over half the concert time, wasn't nearly as interesting as I expected.

Conductor Donato Cabrera opened with a Zemlinsky overture,  Lustspiel, and it was fine; it could have used a bit more sparkle. Then we got what turned out to be the highlight of the program, contralto Sara Couden singing five songs by Alma Mahler. They are luscious, with considerable charm; Alma was talented and we can hate on Gus for pressuring her to quit composing. Couden has a gorgeous voice of a rare type and brought a beautiful line to these. I would have liked more consonants, it's true.

Then the Big Piece, Hans Rott's Symphony No. 1 in E Major, his only mature, complete symphony. Well, by "mature," what I mean is "he wrote it between the ages of 20 and 22." Now, a few composers have written masterpieces at that age - I'm looking at you, Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn - but most have not.

I'm not going to put this thing on any list of great symphonies, ever. I'm....sort of glad to have heard it once. The performance itself had some weaknesses, in the brass and in some transitional moments in the scherzo, and maybe the Lesher Center isn't the ideal venue for a work that comes with a large brass section. I scratched my head at one point where if he'd been Mahler, there would have been some nice offstage brass, but, well, he wasn't. 

This symphony is second-rate Bruckner at best: prolix, repetitive, incompetently written at times, overly long, and kinda dull! It's extremely blocky keeps starting, reaching what should be the end of a movement and restarting. You think that he has finished the last movement - people who didn't notice Cabrera's body language started to applaud - and then you get to sit through a five-minute fugue AND A CODA. The fugue was academic but competent, which did not make up for the extra ten minutes tacked on to the movement. The scherzo....I couldn't quite track all the themes and changes of tempo.

I don't even like first-rate Bruckner, with odd exceptions: Boulez's recorded 8th with the Vienna Philharmonic, the magnificent 7th that MTT conducted the week after William Bennett's tragic death. Overall, though, this music isn't for me. It must be said that I can imagine a more polished performance of the Rott; this was announced as the California premiere of the work, so most or all of the players have probably not seen it before. And I can imagine a performance where the phrasing is more natural and the work holds together better. There are recordings by Segrestrom, Hrůša, P. Järvi and others, but I am likely to give them a pass.


David Bratman said...

I do know Rott's symphony from recordings, and as one familiar with both its flaws and its virtues I found hearing it live on Saturday evening to be thrilling. I find it an unseasoned but deeply interesting work.

The brass balance was not the hall's fault. It's Rott's inexperienced scoring. Cabrera tried to compensate, but it was difficult.

Rott prefigured Mahler's symphonies in many ways. Having a movement seem to come to a close and then it turns out to be only halfway done - that's one of Mahler's most salient characteristics, so no surprise that Rott does the same.

I agree, though, that Couden's singing was the highlight of the concert. I've heard her at Menlo (she did Telemann's Canary Cantata, what a hoot) and she's always good.

More when my review is published.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Is your review for SFCV?

David Bratman said...

Yes. Just up now.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you!

Lisa Hirsch said...

When I heard the opening trumpet theme, I immediately wondered why it wasn't written for French horn.