London Philharmonic: Eötvös, Liszt, Zemlinsky, 26 Jan

The London Philharmonic Orchestra program last night opened with a UK premiere, “Shadows” by Peter Eötvös. It’s sort of a mini concerto for flute, clarinet, a percussionist with snare drum and suspended cymbal, and orchestra. It also calls for a bizarre orchestral layout in which some of the forces sit with their backs to the audience. Here’s a diagram (click to expand):

From where I was sitting, I had a great view of the saxophone player's back.

I couldn’t figure out why the orchestra was asked to sit like this based on the music itself: to muffle the brass? To divide the strings really dramatically? Aside from placing the solo instruments literally in the center of the ring, there seemed to be no particular aural advantage to this. Since the performance was recorded for a CD, perhaps the CD experience will explain Eötvös’ decision.
As for the music itself: it fairly clearly was originally a chamber piece; the best movement was scored for flute and clarinet alone. At other points the orchestra interjected Scary Music chords, reminiscent of Jaws or film noir, and there were some interesting coloristic effects – neat sounds being produced by the ensemble as a whole or individual soloists. Still and all, I’m not entirely sure I could deduce from listening why Eötvös actually wrote the piece. My cynical guess is he had a nice chamber duet sitting around and fulfilled a commission by arranging it up (N.B. looking at his website, this guess is wrong; it was originally for the soloists plus a small wind ensemble and handful of strings). It achieved interesting colors and sounds but didn’t develop any sort of argument or even conversation. 

Maybe it was this context, but I was far more impressed with Liszt’s Second Concerto than I’ve ever been before. Alexander Markovich walked onstage and immediately captured attention, by means of being the most morbidly obese person I’ve ever seen at a classical concert. It actually affects his playing technique, since he has to hold his arms up over his own girth. But, as my friend pointed out, it also affects his theatricality, because his rather large face amplifies any sort of feelings he’s going through – feelings of intensity, or wicked grins, sort of bubble across the chins. At any rate, his pianism had absolutely everything Liszt demands: brilliant technique, great poetry, fire and brimstone. It was a fantastic performance matched by the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski at every point: I think the reason I liked the concerto so much in this performance, compared to so little on the Cziffra CD, was the excited, brilliantly on-point accompaniment, which played up the humor (!) in one of the central episodes and riveted everywhere else.

Google reveals a fellow blogger says Markovich had “the unalloyed joy of a five-year-old.” That’s basically true, and part of his appeal. Plus, he played an encore of enormous wit and good humor, all the way through which he grinned like a little kid and seemed to watch his own fingers the way a child watches cookies baking or Michael Jordan playing ball. It was a piano arrangement of Waldteufel’s Les patineurs, souped up to be absurdly difficult and merrily silly. I suspected Godowsky, but his unofficial website’s list of works doesn’t allude to Waldteufel at all. Samuil Feinberg and Marc-Andre Hamelin similarly pleaded innocence. Heck, I’ll claim to have written it. Markovich had a blast, so we all did too.

After the interval came Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, with soprano Melanie Diener and no less than Thomas Hampson taking the baritone role. I’d never heard the piece before, and on first listen, it has some riveting sections and a couple which were less appealing. One problem was Diener, who struggled to make herself heard. Hampson, of course, is a class act, and every one of his songs was a stunner. The orchestral accompaniment is a miracle of music-making, for it has all the wild movement and oscillation of an oceanscape, uses huge numbers of instruments really well, and transitions from one mood to another really easily. If a couple songs let me down, others were gripping; my friend lost interest halfway through (it is 48 minutes), but that was sad because my favorite part was the very last, when Hampson took a seat and the orchestra wound down to a blissful, breathtaking conclusion.

Note to Eötvös and others of his brand: the reason you introduce a mood, usually (Richard Strauss’ Vier letzte lieder is a good counterexample) is to contrast it with something. Zemlinsky’s piece really captured my imagination because after all that sturm und drang, after all the volatility and uncertainty, that final wind-down felt like going home, or a leaf falling gently to the ground. Or maybe a hard day’s night.

The end of the Lyric Symphony feels like this.

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2 Comments

Filed under Art

2 responses to “London Philharmonic: Eötvös, Liszt, Zemlinsky, 26 Jan

  1. thanks for the thoughtful review of last night’s LPO concert.
    The encore was Alexander Markovich’s own arrangement.

  2. Pingback: Reviews: Eotvos, Liszt and Zemlinsky « London Philharmonic Orchestra News

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