When it comes to playing great music, nothing does it like genius
New York and Philadelphia — When it comes to interpretations of the great music, there is no replacement for the unique insights gained by musicians of talent -- even genius -- who have devoted their lives to that music. In the past few weeks I had a chance to hear three legendary artists in music that has become, for each, a lifelong crusade. The German conductor Eugen Jochum made a lamentably rare appearance on these shores in Philadelphia, conducting Bruckner -- whose nine symphonies he has magnificently recorded for two labels. Leonard Bernstein explored Mahler's craggy Seventh Symphony in a series of performances with the New York Philharmonic which were recorded live for part of what will be his second complete Mahler cycle on records. Nathan Milstein, the last old-school violin virtuoso before the public, shared his latest insights into Bach's towering Chaconne from the D-minor Partita -- a work he recorded, perhaps definitively, in a Deutsche Grammophon set devoted to the complete unaccompanied sonatas and partitas.
Jochum is a selfless musician. This towering man has always relied on gestures that communicated what was needed for the orchestra to anticipate his wishes, nothing more. Those gestures still imply that he expects his players to perform like alert musicians to make this collaborative effort truly serve the composer.
His Philadelphia Academy of Music program opened with a performance of Mozart's 33rd Symphony that lilted from beginning to end on the impulse of dance. But the Bruckner Ninth was the main event, and it did not disappoint. Over the years, Jochum's tempos have slowed down, allowing the drama of this piece -- the composer fundamentally questioning the depth of his faith -- to be ever more grippingly unfolded. In Philadelphia, Jochum made it clear that the ethereal, otherworldly closing pages of the Adagio
of this unfinished symphony were, in every way, Bruckner's valedictory.
That Adagio builds to a shattering climax full of screaming dissonances -- Bruckner, the faithful, facing the abyss. I have never heard that climax more skillfully prepared, more devastatingly delivered.
Had that been the only high point of Jochum's performance, it would have been enough. But the performance proved to be the ideal wedding of a great orchestra with a musician of extraordinary nuance, sensitivity, and insight. Together, Jochum and the magnificent Philadelphians offered a live performance by which I will be measuring all future accounts of the work.
And all my future encounters with Mahler's Seventh Symphony will have to be measured against Bernstein's series of performances with the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra and its music director emeritus have sustained an unusual, rewarding relationship over the years. He demands more of the players than they are used to delivering these days, and they rose to the compliment, be it in the haunting horn playing of Philip Meyers, the richly colored clarinet playing of Stanley Drucker, or the stunning va riety in tympanist Roland Kohloff's work.
The Seventh, Mahler's most inscrutable symphony, was so ahead of its time that only now are conductors really coming to terms with it. The tone is one of unrelieved pessimism and futility, which Mahler tried ever so hard to mask -- particularly in the final movement, with its incessant, even hysterical, bursts of C major. The darkness that Bernstein highlighted in the ominous opening pages he sustained throughout the five-movement piece. He rightly saw the first movement as a phantasmagoria of funereal darkness; the middle three movements never lost continuity, because he viewed the lilting charm as ironic commentary on, rather than relief from, the fragmentation and the dark undercurrents. The finale dripped with irony, right through to the final abrupt chord that slams the door on its empty joy.
Bernstein's struggles in this symphony were mighty -- as they have to be. Particularly in last Saturday evening's performance, the orchestra was with him from beginning to end. The slight rough edges of the Philharmonic sound were exactly right for a work in which even the frankly beautiful moments are consumed by pessimism and fatalism.
There is nothing pessimistic or fatalistic about Bach's solo violin music, as Mr. Milstein so eloquently demonstrated in his Carnegie Hall recital a few weeks back. He was to have played the entire Bach D-minor Partita; at the end of his brilliant performance of the Chaconne, he did try to apologize for omitting the four other dances. But who could quibble? The unstinting outpouring of opulent tone, the inflections and minute shading differentiations on a long, arching musical line -- all made this perf ormance communicate the expansive structure and emotional scope of the music.
Not for Milstein the dry, lightweight, characterless approach many of the younger generation take today. He digs into his instrument, coaxing out a symphony of colors, timbres, and shadings to let the music work its magic. It is as if his violin were plugged directly into his heart; through him, Bach took on a thrilling immediacy that one rarely encounters in the concert hall.