REVIEW: Sublime Singing and a Different Side of Jaap
DECEMBER 6, 2018
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
Jaap van Zweden can do delicate too. His inaugural season as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic has burst out of the gate with bombast, shaking the roof of David Geffen Hall with an electric Rite of Spring, Bruckner's behemoth Eighth Symphony, and just last week, Shostakovich's explosive Seventh Symphony. But this week, the Maestro proves he can also maneuver in a lower gear. Joined by German baritone Matthias Goerne, an award-winning interpreter of German Lieder commencing his Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residency with the New York Philharmonic, van Zweden has fashioned an intriguing assortment of German and Austrian music, and a revealing peek at his approach to the traditional repertoire.
The concert opens with an austere contrapuntal work by J.S. Bach, the Fuga (Ricercata) from Musical Offering, as orchestrated by twentieth century Austrian composer Anton Webern. Webern, one of the notable practitioners of atonal and serialist music in the early twentieth century, used his ensembles' instruments discreetly, less being more. As one of the composers implicated in the demise of tonality (and with it, the traditional sound of Western classical music), the prospect of hearing his take on Bach peaked my interest.
Van Zweden has the orchestra sounding like a soft pipe organ in a gothic cathedral, but the result is curiously obscure. This was an exceptionally controlled, highly contained reading, each phrase polished like a grain of rice destined for a barrel of sake. Each instrument's attack gently rounded, the cumulative effect is reminiscent of a glass harmonica. But, Bach's searching fugue feels lugubrious in this orchestration. It has the air of an exercise.
What follows can also feel a tad like an exercise (in the art of orchestration), yet one that relishes gloriously in the vocalism of Matthias Goerne. The celebrated baritone and van Zweden have assembled a generous (perhaps overly so) set of Austrian Lieder, alternating between those of Franz Schubert and his later compatriot Richard Strauss. Of course, Schubert, the original master tunesmith, penned his art songs for voice and piano. Here, the Schubert selections are presented in orchestrated versions, some more inspired than others. Van Zweden accompanied with the closely hewed collaboration that a pianist would provide, always right in step with Goerne. But, two 2015 orchestrations by Alexander Schmalcz could be bettered. (Doubling the vocal line with trumpet, as in the last verse of An Sylvia?) The winner here, aside from Strauss, who scored songs like the sublime Morgen! himself, is Johannes Brahms, whose arrangement of Schubert's Greisengesang transforms it into a veritable orchestral piece.
Goerne, who studied with legendary masters Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, tells a story in these songs. Open and communicative, with a warm, mahogany timbre, he only occasionally allows us to glimpse his full power. He’s not holding back, mind you, but employing an uncommonly vast dynamic palette. Rather than getting louder as the notes leap higher, he can surprise by getting sweetly softer, and never pinched. Goerne's diction never draws attention to itself -- his use of language is natural and gentle. Anyone who errantly adheres to the German language's underserved reputation for being unattractive should hear this performance. This is extraordinary singing.
Following intermission, van Zweden led a sprightly, vital account of Mozart's familiar, yet always fresh, Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. Here again, the ensemble played with rounded edges, every little phrase carefully shaped and going somewhere -- but not always where expected. Van Zweden keeps the tempo driving and bright, and the orchestra achieves vivacious dynamic contrasts, always of a piece, the planes of texture and activity carefully balanced. The resulting performance allows Mozart's Sturm und Drang drama to come to the fore, without romanticizing. I wish the hall's acoustics would have cooperated more when the low strings were busy in fast running passages. But on the whole, the Philharmonic sounded just about perfect. They seemed to be having fun, too, especially in the outré onset of the fourth movement's development section, one of the many ideas Mozart had about two hundred years ahead of his time.