Thursday, May 19, 2016

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

MTT conducted basic works by Schumann and Brahms, plus The Death of Cleopatra by Berlioz, more of an operatic recitative and aria in the guise of a concert piece, in which Cleo does the thing that Romantic opera heroines like to do best, which is to commit suicide, at considerable length. Susan Graham sang, very well I suppose - I'm not really a judge of this kind of music. More interesting was the circumstance of its composition. Berlioz wrote it as his qualification entry for a composing fellowship that he was tipped to win, but the music was considered too advanced and he failed. "I prefer soothing music," explained one of the judges. "But sir," replied Berlioz, "if you want me to write soothing music, don't set me a text of a despairing queen who dies in agony."

The Brahms, which was the Haydn Variations, and the Schumann, which was the Fourth Symphony, were basic readings out not to reveal, but to clarify. Schumann's melodic line consists of a series of short phrases, and MTT was out to separate those phrases and balance them against each other. He also introduced a bit of welcome grit into the slow movement; in fact, both this and the trio were entirely devoid of the cloying and incongruous sweetness that's the usual flaw in performances of this symphony. A solid job, and soon to be released on CD, they say.

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