Berlin Phil descends upon New York

I only made it to one of last weekend’s Berliner Philharmoniker concerts. It was the first one, and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

The composers Debussy, Dvořák, Schoenberg
and Elgar and aren’t often associated with each other, but they
featured together in the first of three concerts in Carnegie Hall with
Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. The works on the program,
it turned out, all dated from the 1890s and all were program music. But
Rattle and the orchestra, while technically flawless, only seemed to
connect with the material at some points.

Read the rest of the review here. I’ve usually been a big Rattle fan. I went to college in Philadelphia, where he visited the orchestra every other year and we never missed a program. But this one left me in the end less thrilled, much in the same way I found his Salome last spring in Salzburg–flawless but chilly, in a repertoire in which coldness does no favors. But the Enigma Variations, a piece I’ve never been crazy about, was pretty spectacular. I do like the Dvořák too, which is never sugary and always subtle.

Those things could not be said of Jack Sullivan’s program notes. In the note to Dvořák’s Golden Spinning Wheel, he perpetuates the dangerous cliché that the Germanic composers of this period wrote in a generic mainstream style driven by intellectual processes and education, while the “nationalist” composer such as Dvořák (or Chopin, or Glinka, or Liszt) is more “authentic,” unstudied, and instinctual. Sullivan’s Dvořák communes with the Czech spirit at a primordial level, but to get this he distorts a number of facts. While Czech folklore was very important to Dvořák, this did not preclude him being literate and cosmopolitan as well–just like most composers of any nationality.

He describes The Golden Spinning Wheel as one of four “orchestral ballades” that Dvořák “knocked off” in 1896, which he describes as based on a “folktale” and “fairy tale.” “Knocked off” is a condescending way of putting it–would we ever say that Brahms knocked off something? And the second half simply isn’t true. The Golden Spinning Wheel is based on a poem by the Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben. Its sources are folkloric to be sure, but Dvořák was working from a literary source, not transcribing the spirit of a fairytale from his grandma.

Sullivan describes the form of the piece thusly:

Dvořák often used classical sonata form in his symphonic works, but the structure of The Golden Spinning-Wheel, based directly on the verbal rhythms of folklorist Karel Jaromir [sic] Erben’s text, is as far from Viennese classicism as possible, giving the piece a liberating unpredictability that was later celebrated and built upon by Leoš Janáček.

Oy. So here we have the first mention of Erben, whose responsibility for the source material is never further clarified. Then we have a description of something that sounds like a proto-Janáčekian speech-melody technique. I don’t know this piece enough to say if it’s present or not, but even if it is, “verbal rhythms” work on the local, phrase level, which has nothing to do with whether the piece is in sonata form or not.

But most seriously, what is this form that is “as far from Viennese classicism as possible”? It’s… a rondo. An odd rondo, with a lot of little ternary forms in the episodes, but a recognizable rondo nonetheless. Rondos are one of the foremost Viennese classical forms. Of course, many folk forms also contain similar forms with a recurring section. The stark binary between Czech and not-Czech music just doesn’t exist. Prague is not, after all, very far from Vienna.

Updated to Add: The program note for the Enigma Variations identifies Variation VI (Ysobel) as being a violin solo. It’s a viola.

(By the way, I often write program notes myself. If you need some, call me.)

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