Riccardo Chailly and the case of the missing violas

(I would first like to welcome all of you who followed Franz Welser-Möst’s Facebook and Twitter links.  Danke schön for the link, Maestro, or rather thanks to whoever writes the maestro’s tweets and Facebook.)

The bows on the center-right side of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig were moving furiously, but I couldn’t hear a thing.  Herein I consider whether Schumann really was a crappy orchestrator after all, an obscure Mendelssohn piece that perhaps should stay that way, and some much more rewarding things about Friday night’s Musikverein concert, including some fine violin-playing from Frank Peter Zimmermann.

But first let’s talk anniversaries. Haul out your coffin full of poetry, because this year marks the 200th anniversary of Schumann’s birth.  It seems like we just had a Schumann year.   Because we did–2006 was the 150th anniversary of his death.  But like Prokofiev’s proximity in death to Stalin, Schumann had to share that anniversary with Mozart, and didn’t really get much attention outside pianists and a few lieder-singers.  This time he gets to share with both Chopin and Mahler.  So, yeah, screwed again, in Vienna at least.  Even the pianists and lieder-singers have other events to celebrate this time.

But his hometown orchestra, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, didn’t forget, even if their Vienna celebration was not always spotless.  They managed to sneak birthday boy Mahler in there too.

Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Riccardo Chailly; Sept. 10, 2010, Musikverein.  Mendelssohn: Trompeten-Ouvertüre, op. 101; Schumann, Violin Concerto in d minor, WoO 23; Overtüre zu Lord Byrons “Manfred,” op. 115; Symphony No. 4, op. 120 (Mahler edition).

I don’t think Mendelssohn wrote any bad pieces of music, but the Trumpet Overture is not one of his more memorable.  Lots of contrapuntal business plus endless sequences means it always seems to be purposefully headed somewhere, but it never arrives at any good themes.  The orchestra was tight and precise, but the small string sections were frequently overpowered by the winds and the inner voices of the strings seemed inaudible, even in the dream acoustics of the Musikverein.  Eponymous trumpets sounded fine, but I would have traded this one in for a good Hebrides or Midsummer any day.

The Schumann Violin Concerto is a problem work, suppressed for decades after the composer’s death because it supposedly contained signs of his incipient madness.  There have been several rehabilitation attempts that claim the concerto’s strangeness is really great innovation.  Either way, the piece has some interesting moments but they don’t really hang together.  Frank Peter Zimmermann dispatched the awkward violin writing with effortless clarity and elegance and virtuosity in the last movement.  The already-quiet orchestra seemed to recede entirely at most points.  The many piano-like arpeggios sound like a warm-up for the Brahms Violin Concerto, Zimmermann put some good lyricism in them but I’m still not convinced.

The second half of the concert was much better.  Both the Manfred Overture and the Symphony No. 4 were performed in Mahler’s pared-down editions (I wondered if the man near me with an Urtext symphony score had brought it for comparison or was very confused).  Two anniversaries for the price of one!  Maybe it was the Mahlerization but the balance between strings and winds was considerably better, though I still had trouble with the strings’ inner voices.  I’m not sure what the tempo marking on the Romazne movement is (sorry, didn’t shell out for a program), but it sounded fast, almost an allegretto.  Lovely wind solos, though.  Chailly proved a master of pacing in both, particularly the symphony’s dramatic transition into the final movement, and the last few minutes of the symphony were fantastic, a great end to an uneven concert.

I know using Mahler or other touched-up editions is outré these days, but maybe Schumann does need it.  Chailly defends Mahler’s edition in an interview in the Musikverein magazine, saying that Schumann’s orchestration really was too thick and Mahler gets closer to what Schumann wanted to do.  I’m not even going there.  Not today, at least. Municipal elections are in a few weeks and four political parties are parked on the four corners of the intersection nearest my apartment, and I’m finding the steady pffffts of Die Grünen blowing up balloons distracting.  Those better be biodegradable balloons, guys.

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