HAYDN: Symphony No. 99 in E-flat Major; SCHOENBERG: Piano Concerto; TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36 – John Ogden, piano/ New Philharmonia Orchestra/ Rafael Kubelik – Audite 95.745 (2 CDS: 84:30) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
Immediately after the Russian suppression of Czechoslovakia’s “Prague Spring” in the summer of 1968, Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996), now an émigré living in his adapted city of Lucerne in Switzerland, organized for 8 September 1968 an epic concert that defied all expectations, mostly political, in his avoidance of “national” music in favor of a cosmopolitan program that embraced even “the enemy.” For this concert, in which the newly organized Philharmonia Orchestra, well acquainted with Kubelik’s physical style, participated, the British virtuoso John Ogden (1937-1989) joined the ensemble for a performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s 1944 Piano Concerto, here in his sole appearance at the Lucerne Festival. The coup de grace came in the form of a sweeping rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, its “fate” motif transcending the cruel politics of the moment.
Kubelik begins with a lustily sparkling performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 99 in E-flat, imbued with a vivacious warmth from its opening notes. The interplay between the New Philharmonia strings, winds, and brass resounds in superb clarity of line, sober but impassioned, a testament to joie de vivre that political intimidation cannot quell. After its minor mode entry materials, the first movement Vivace assai explodes with voluptuous mirth, and the New Philharmonia bassoon will have his moment in the sun at several points. The woodwind section will shine with textural elegance in the second movement Adagio. Trumpets and tympani make a decided mark before this elegant slow movement concludes. The clever manipulation of themes and key center dominates the Finale: Vivace, a sonata-rondo that relishes its contrapuntal dexterity. The pompous, aristocratic line often hearkens to Handel for its opulence and majesty of contour. But where is well-deserved the applause?
Enter the brilliant if eccentric piano virtuoso John Ogden, whom this writer encountered once only, in Atlanta, for a reading of the Ravel Concerto in G. The Schoenberg began its history as a commission from American virtuoso Oscar Levant (1906-1972), but he and Schoenberg could not agree on financial terms, so the premier fell to Edward Steuermann, who premiered the work with Leopold Stokowski and the NBC Symphony. The Concerto proceeds as one, continuous movement that subdivides into the traditional sequence: Andante (Waltz), Molto allegro (Scherzo), Adagio, and Giocoso Rondo), following models in Schubert and Liszt.
Though conceived according to Schoenberg serial, 12-tone row principle, the music violates the tenets by repeating notes and clustering tones into identifiable key centers. The scale of the piece remains relatively subdued, chamber music in particular, with elements both of jazz, cacophony, and, in the last movement, Bach. The source of tension and “modernism” lies in the syntactical dissonance and harmonic instability Schoenberg explores, while the keyboard part often feels like a concertante color instrument, an extension of the Brahms model of a piano concerto. That the piece ends squarely in C Major must surely strike us as a supreme irony in the context of music history. This reading, pungently clear at all points, produces a sense of intimate collaboration, even despite the knotty meanderings of the melodic line and rhythmic shifts, a product more in the antiquated sense of a color consort.
The presence of the Russian “oppressor” at this concert, the 1878 Tchaikovsky “Fate Symphony,” caused no end of controversy at the time, but Kubelik renders the work as a sign of spiritual victory over all dogmas. The opening Andante sostenuto – Moderato con anima proceeds with impelled fury, soon subsiding into dialogues among the New Philharmonia winds over a soft string line, A sense of mystery, of rapturous song, emerges from the flute riffs, bassoon warbles, and weaving, waltzing strings. The tympani marks the secondary melody with a discernible heartbeat, that same mortal presence we detect in the classic renditions from Furtwaengler, Koussevitzky, and Mravinsky. The theatrical elements dominate the varied textures, the conflicting points of aggression and retreat. It was with this very work that Kubelik initiated his association with the Czech Philharmonic in 1933. By the time of the first movement recapitulation, the trumpet work has become no less than colossal, the gestures alternately tragic and heroic, a panorama of huge proportions. The coda, as per expectation, becomes a paroxysm, a frenzy of conflict, despair, and triumph merged into one, furious entity. A single audience clap follows.
The Andantino and Scherzo follow as color energies, warmly melodic and texturally diaphanous, as required. True, the Andantino in modo canzone has its moments of martial declamation, and the pungent, ostinato pizzicatos of the Scherzo resolve into a fervent Cossack dance, a dexterously executed, martial Allegro. The Finale: Allegro con fuoco fulfills our expectations in its controlled mania, the cymbal crash enough to drive all would-be dictators of the mind and body out of this world. The Russian folk song that emerges, “In the Field Stood a Birch Tree,” might signify Kubelik’s own, stalwart sense of resolve in the face of threatening, political winds. This tune’s D Minor incarnation leads to the reprise, cyclically, of the first movement’s “Fate motif,” now in glorious Technicolor. At 7:05, we begin the illustrious series of gestures to the coda, which more than explodes; it tears into a virtually hysterical appeal to Mankind to seize the moment to transcend its all-too-human limitations. Now, the applause is quite palpable. Highly recommended, and turn up the speakers.
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