Friday 18 November 2011

Every cut a little death

Brutal chops in a couple of large-scale works I've heard over the past ten days reminded me of what Sviatoslav Richter had to say, recounted with warmth by his one-time duo partner Elisabeth Leonskaja when I had the huge pleasure of interviewing her at last year's Verbier Festival. We were talking about various approaches to the Schubert sonatas and I said how surprised I was, much as I liked the lady's general approach, by Imogen Cooper's omission of the exposition repeats in the Big 'Uns. Like D960, for instance, where by missing out the eight bars linking back to the first-movement repeat, she deprived us of essential music including a terrifying new appearance of the subterranean rumble which threatens the movement's stability.

Anyway, according to Leonskaja re Richter, 'If someone did not play a repeat, his question was: "You don’t love Chopin? You don’t love Schubert? Why?" [Does humble pupil voice] "Yes, I love it." "But why don’t you repeat?" And very often he said, "You know, for the public everything is interesting, only for the musicians is it not interesting to repeat." '

So I would have the same question for, of all people, that ardent champion of his fellow Czechs' music Jiří Bělohlávek when, last Thursday evening, I heard him reducing the admittedly long and involved symphonic poem I discussed below before the concert had taken place, The Golden Spinning Wheel, by about a third: 'You don't love Dvořák? Why?' Admittedly an elaborately descriptive piece such as this has its problems, but if you're going to do it, do it properly and, ideally, give a short introduction drawing in the orchestra to play a few signpost-snippets to help unacquainted listeners.

I'm assuming Bělohlávek must also do the same in his Chandos recording of The Noonday Witch, for again the timing comes out about five minutes shorter than the Rattle interpretation, which is one of Sir Si's finest achievements in terms of both colour and - surprising, but in this instance true - phrasing. At any rate, no-one would cut The Wood Dove, the most Mahlerian of the pack and very much more to the point. But I love all four; whatever the scene being depicted, Dvořák's genius for melody and unorthodox orchestration seems to burn at its brightest.

A more familiar casualty, and in this instance conductors take the cue from the doubtful composer himself, is Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony. It would be ungracious of me to cite the recorded performance I've just written the notes for, and been edited for my pains in pointing out what's not so good about the cuts in question.

Suffice it to say this isn't the first time I've heard a Russian slashing and burning the work. Yuri Ahronovitch many years ago took us aback by cutting the finale short with a straight reprise of the first-movement coda, denying Tchaikovsky's Manfred the very unByronic redemption which usually comes as a stick-in-the-throat apotheosis (though Vladimir Jurowski convinced me it could work).

That doesn't worry me as much as the lopping of some decidedly strong stuff earlier, especially in the finale's underground orgy. Ever since I deduced that the voices in the central fugue depict the five tempter spirits, I've doubled my pleasure in it; but in any case I reckon Tchaikovsky is unfairly lambasted for the few fugues, or fugatos, he does write; they seem to work pretty well to me. And much as he may have thought of dropping three of his four Manfred movements, much of the invention here is as fine as anything he wrote, and certainly unique in terms of orchestration.

On a not entirely unrelated note, I've followed a convoluted trail to watch some very significant threads and patches of what may be Sibelius's Eighth Symphony as performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic under John Storgårds. Wouldn't it be wonderful, as I wrote at the end of this Arts Desk Buzz piece, if Saraste could append these startling fragments to his upcoming instalment in the BBCSO's Sibelius cycle?


Gavin Plumley said...

A friend of mine said that cut performances can, oddly, feel longer... once you take the logic out of a work the audience has to work hard to reconstruct what isn't there.

David said...

Absolutely, Strauss may have been the first to say so - and doesn't it feel it in Frau ohne Schatten? It's also odd that the difficult third act always seems to work better uncut.

A similar point might be made about The Golden Spinning Wheel, but here the most criminal acts would be the decimation of the fairy-tale rule of three, and the excising of the wicked stepmother's first entry so that when her music returns, no-one has a clue why. Of course you have to know the story, but students I'd prepared for all this did notice of their own accords and were very puzzled.

David Damant said...

I tread fearfully in raising a real horror in such a sophisticated arena, but before Emirates forced the other leading airlines to install a proper system for classsical music BA used to have a tape of only the andante movements from symphonies. I tried it once - it was like eating a large box of milk chocolates straight off - and it made me just as sick

For Handel operas, I think proper opinion is that an aria is better cut out altogether rather than playing just the first section of the tryptitch.

David said...

Indeed - I remember Abbado suing DG for using slow movements from his Mahler recordings on a single CD. Bet you never got the whole movements anyway.

Never thought I'd be a purist about Handel, but I was sad that a couple of Almirena's arias were axed from the Glyndebourne on Tour Rinaldo - a friend remarked that Lizzie Watts's part seemed small and I surprised him by saying that one of her most fun - if not character-consistent - numbers had gone. But then, as we know, no revival ever had the same numbers, such was operatic practice in Handel's time and beyond, and the later version of Rinaldo sanctioned by the man himself is a sorry thing.

David Damant said...

Quite a lot of Handel performances have some arias cut out (completely) as the operas are "too long". Maybe we should see this principle applied to Wagner ?

David said...

I won't rise to that one. Sir, you are too provoking (since one can only assume you are not stupid).

Susan Scheid said...

As I write, I've been listening to The Wood Dove, just glorious! (Then I think, gosh, what if this version I’ve pulled from Spotify is cut?!) I think there are going to be a lot of tone poems in my future. Though I know it’s best to learn the actual story associated with each piece, even without that, these beautiful pieces send me off on an imaginative trail of my own. I’ve spotted the Complete Dvořák Symphonic Poems with Neeme Jarvi conducting the Royal Scottish Symphony Orchestra (Chandos) on emusic (trying to keep my music budget in line a bit!)—what do you think?

I’ve also raced back to your earlier post, and was reminded you’d said this: “what I construe to be the dead hand of the prescriptive 1950s, decreeing that all music which tells a story is suspect and that therefore any but the most established tone-poems are doomed to extinction, may account for why I've never heard The Golden Spinning Wheel and its companion pieces, no less wonderful in orchestration and invention (The Wood Dove, The Noonday Witch and The Water-Sprite), in the concert-hall.” I suspect you’re right, and here is just one more example of the incredible damage that period did.

I was amused by David Damant’s comment about the airline playing a compilation of andantes—I remember hearing that somewhere, too, and it was just as he said. In a bit of serendipity, I was thinking about it today as I listened to the Andantino from Faure's Piano Trio (another recent discovery, and it never fails to carry me off), then reminded myself how awful if it had been packaged in that way.

By the way, those paintings are so appealing—by right-clicking I was able to see they’re about Manfred, so off I go on another trail of discovery . . . but, oops, I see the Manfred Symphony I’ve found is Jurowski’s, so without the coda! What's a person to do?

David said...

No, I don't think ANYONE would cut The Wood Dove, as it's much the shortest of the four and could almost get by without the story (ie Funeral March - Wedding - Funeral March plus weird bird noises). You'd no doubt do well by great Neeme - I have a box of his Dvorak symphonies but don't know his recording of the tone poems. Rattle and Mackerras are wonderful.

And I must have obfuscated about the different Manfreds, for Jurowski's DOES have it all - what I was trying to say is that he DOES convince me about the original ending - and is the No. 1 of all the Manfreds I've heard. So stick with that - it catches all the ravishing colours in the score.

The wider landscape looks Turner, but is by John Martin, whose apocalyptic canvases thrilled me in my teens, and I still have a soft spot for him. There is/was (hope it's still on and I haven't missed it) a big exhibition of his stuff at Tate Britain.

Roger Neill said...

In forty years and more of a love affair with Tchaikovsky, I've never warmed to Manfred. Is it because, as you suggest, David, I've been listening to bowdlerised versions?

You wrote about all this just as I feel I'm finally making some headway with it. Liking very much the recording by the LSO/Simonov in the Brilliant box you recommended in BaL. Of course, without a score, I've no idea how complete it really is!

David said...

Your good friend VJ, as I suggested, is the one to hear - presume you've caught one of his several live performances, if not the recording?

I'll check out Simonov anon. Most recordings tend to be complete, at least after Toscanini's which had quite a few cuts (but not, if I remember rightly, the 'tragic' replacement ending).

My own feelings have always been that the organ apotheosis is too Victorian and un-Tchaikovskyan, and that his own instincts would have led to a more Byronic last farewell. But the first movement is one of the best things PIT ever wrote, and the second the most bewitchingly orchestrated. I like the ambiguous mixed palette of the third and the wild rumpus of the finale's first half. Then, problems, whichever way you look at it...

Roger Neill said...

I think you're right about the organ finale, David.

People say that it's first impressions that count, but in so many aspects of life it's last impressions that remain.

I'll order VJ!

Susan Scheid said...

Re Jurowski, yes, now I see what you meant, and thanks.

David said...

Wise saw on the subject, Roger. You must both enjoy 'the Jurowski Manfred'.

But now that I've heard that force of nature, Prospero Abbado, conduct Tchaikovsky's The Tempest - just back from Rome - I have another Tchaik semi-masterpiece to wonder over. Never heard it in concert before, always tend to forget its singular qualities (the sea around the island, the love theme, the little Ariel-Caliban episode). And Abbado made the orchestration sound like a thing of wonder - all this from PIT as early as 1873! But then R&J is early too.

Geo. said...

I heard JB's performance on iPlayer of The Golden Spinning Wheel, and too was rather jolted that he cut the work short, a pity as the orchestra sounded really good. Perhaps the powers-that-be felt that the concert was too long? It would have been more sensible to program one of the shorter Dvorak tone poems instead, with obvious 20-20 hindsight. One only hopes that the new JB recording that you mentioned is perhaps due to faster tempi than surgery on the score, since there's no worries about time limits or running overtime in a recording.

David said...

In my experience the BBCSO powers that be tend to think that the longer the players have to work and play the better - I'd be pretty sure it was JB's decision.

After all, there were some marathon concerts in the Martinu symphonies season and there are some real blockbusters coming up one of which is Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, Sibelius Songs and Belshazzar's Feast music, Walton's Belshazzar's Feast..)