Monday, May 21, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Met Orchestra Performs Debussy, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky

On Friday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the first of the three concerts given annually by the Met Orchestra following the end of the opera season.  On this occasion, the orchestra, conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, currently music director of the City of Birmingham Orchestra, performed a fairly conservative program that featured the works of three prominent late-nineteenth century composers - Debussy, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky.

The concert opened with Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894).  So little does this short work resemble any known nineteenth century musical genre that Pierre Boulez deemed it the beginning of modern music.  It might possibly be considered a tone poem, but the music is not really programmatic despite its source in Mallarmé's poem which actually when read evokes a completely different mood.  The music is not so much modernist as impressionist (no matter how much Debussy detested the term) and I think it's best viewed as a recreation in musical form of a series of sensuous experiences.  The composer himself described it as "a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams..."  As such, it readily lent itself to adaptation into one of the Ballets Russes best known, and most scandalous, dance works.  Many years ago, I saw a performance by the Joffrey Ballet that attempted to recreate the original productions of both Le sacre du printemps and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, including both costumes and choreography. It was an excellent realization of the mood Debussy sought to create and brought to life the sense of unfulfilled longing that suffuses the music.

The next work was Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death (1877), here presented in the 1962 orchestration by Dmitri Shostakovich and sung by mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili.  This is a work I can never remember having heard before, even though it's one of the composer's masterpieces as well as arguably the most important song cycle in the Russian musical tradition.  It consists of four songs - Lullaby, Serenade, Trepak (a type of Cossack dance) and The Field Marshal - each of which portrays Death as a wily figure who most often takes his victims by subterfuge.  The entire cycle was completed only four years before Mussorgsky's own premature death at age 42, but there is no hint of self-pity in these pieces.  Instead, they are curiously detached and more than a little macabre.  They certainly had a great impact on Shostakovich who went on to add to the cycle in his own Fourteenth Symphony.  

Mussorgsky's music turned out to be the highlight of the concert.  Ms. Rachvelishvili turned in an impressive performance on a truly demanding piece.  I'm hopeful I'll hear her sing again sometime in the near future.

After intermission, the concert concluded with a performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877-1878).  In listening to this work, it's almost impossible to get around its nickname of "Fate" that was first given it by the composer himself when describing to Nadezhda von Meck, who had only recently become his patroness and to whom he dedicated the work, the fanfare that opens the first movement. 
"The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony, undoubtedly the main idea: This is Fate: this is that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal, which jealously ensures that peace and happiness shall not be complete and unclouded, which hangs above the head like the sword of Damocles, unwaveringly, constantly poisoning the soul. It is an invincible force that can never be overcome—merely endured, hopelessly."
Tchaikovsky's negative view of fate must at least in part have resulted from the extremely brief and extremely unhappy marriage he had just suffered through.  His nine weeks with the hapless Antonina Milyukova, whom he may only have married in the first place to mask his homosexuality, no doubt left him despairing he could ever attain any really happiness in life.  Such a reading is borne out by the fourth and final movement.  Here the mood is generally upbeat until the Fate theme returns and darkens the music.  It's as if Tchaikovsky were saying that just as one begins to feel he or she has moved on from tragedy and is once again capable of enjoying life, destiny inevitably comes knocking and reveals happiness to be no more than an elusive chimera.

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