26 August 2015

From the Archives: After a concert at Jordan Hall

[ 14 Mar 2002 ]

The Symphonies of Wind Instruments was even better than fond memory led me to expect. In other recordings (none of which have I heard especially recently, but the latest I remember being a Dutoit effort), sadly, some of the strongest "retention" was the impression of screechy clarinets in the block which opens (and, since it comes back, with this timbral barbarity, gave the impression of the Unwelcome Guest who didn't know enough to stay away ...

... but even this block sounded balanced and warm. The whole piece was a joy to hear ringing in Jordan Hall. The alto flute did an awful lot of swaying, but if that's her mode, let her at it; she played fine (and the alto flute always gives me the impression of requiring more air than a tuba). The alto flute and alto clarinet duet has to be experienced to be believed; and, having once experienced it, it is impossible to believe that Stravinsky himself would give that up in a revision. It is a fact that he did, but it is a sonically impossible fact.

The closing Meno mosso (Tempo primo) section was astoundingly beautiful; I don't know when I've heard three trumpets play with such sensitive intonation, and indeed with such timbral sympathy that they sounded like a single trumpet. When the flutes and clarinets were added for the last page, the effect was magical, not as though new color were being added, but as though a highlight was cast on the color already on the canvas.

They played the Ives very well, too. Indeed (at once to paraphrase a hobbit, and subvert his meaning) I almost felt I liked Ives, while they were playing. They did a terrific job. The test of a wind transcription is, not wishing that there were the original strings, instead (but maybe there weren't original strings ... the program notes hinted at a band version of a [no longer extant] organ piece .. so maybe the strings were added by Ives).

But at the last, I was forcefully reminded of a complaint I have brought to Ives' door before -- for as I walked from Jordan Hall to the T stop, what was sounding in my inner ear was the march tune. And when Ives writes in a way that you remember a ta-da-da-taaa tune that he "quotes" and not Ives, well, you ain't remembering Ives, are you?

The surprise quiet coda, while theoretically the point, doesn't stay with you; the boorish blat of the brass band has had too heavy a sonic footprint.

The NEC Jazz Composers Orchestra (somebody help me but, decent ensemble though they were, this is an abuse of the word orchestra) had opened the program with a tune called Dreams. It was all right, without striking me as anything special. The trumpets/flugelhorns could have benefited from contemplating the wonderful intonation evidenced in the Stravinsky performance. I have a hard time taking seriously any clarinetist who plays with puffy cheeks. I mean, if he sounded like he had control, puffy cheeks notwithstanding, I could handle that.

But these clarinets sounded every bit like the cheeks were puffy.

There was a bass clarinet, but the way the "head" was written, you didn't care. Another sharp contrast with the Stravinsky, in which, while the alto clarinet was expected to have fully the facility of a soprano clarinetist, the part was brilliantly written with the registral characteristics of the alto in mind.

A most enjoyable evening at the hall.

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