It’s hard to recapture the power that Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama Pelléas et Mélisande exerted when it first appeared in 1893. The play centers on the doomed passion between Pelléas and Mélisande, the wife of his half-brother Golaud—and it reaches its denouement when Golaud murders Pelléas and mortally injures Mélisande. Yet the desire, incest and fratricide are treated in an understated, allusive, even diaphanous way—and this disorienting combination of elements took Europe by storm. Within a little over a decade, Debussy, Schoenberg, Sibelius, and Fauré (not to mention the lesser-known William Wallace) had all provided musical settings, each with a different perspective on the play’s underlying ambiguities. Debussy’s opera, for instance, conjures up its ethereal, other-worldly character; Schoenberg’s massive tone poem centers on its angst-filled eroticism.
The incidental music by Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924) is perhaps the gentlest of the settings, as you might expect if you know his remarkably intimate Requiem (performed by Symphoria in 2015). The music was originally composed in 1898 for a British production, and orchestrated by Fauré’s pupil Charles Koechlin. Fauré later adapted Koechlin’s orchestration for a suite of excerpts, which is how the music is best known. Except for the final number, “The Death of Mélisande,” the music dexterously avoids the more emotional undercurrents of the play.
The Cello Concerto No. 1 (1872) by Fauré’s teacher Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) inhabits another musical world entirely—as extroverted as the Fauré is understated, as direct as the Fauré is allusive. Its difference is obvious as soon as we hear its unrestrained opening gesture which, according to tonight’s soloist Julian Schwarz, is “as bravura a passage as there is in the repertoire”—and which is as instantly memorable as the openings of the Schumann and Grieg Piano Concertos. Formally, the work is equivocal, and can be considered either as a single movement in three sections or as a set of three interconnected movements (like the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto or like the Bates Violin Concerto we heard at this season’s opening concert). How does Julian see it? The thematic connections among the sections (something found in the Bates but not in the Mendelssohn) encourage him to treat it as a single movement—a decision that affects, for instance, his tempo choices. Take the middle section: “If one were to play it at a very slow tempo”—as you might, if it were a separate movement—“it would take the listener out of the piece as a whole. But if you play it in a more flowing manner, then it really just seems like the logical next section of the piece.” That continuity, coupled with the concerto’s relative brevity, helps the performer maintain the listener’s attention. “The nice thing about the one-movement work,” says Julian, “is that you never have a chance to tune out. If there’s a moment of break, it’s easy for the listener to disengage. But if it’s a continuous, constantly evolving piece, it can always be very interesting.”
Of course, the Saint-Saëns has held its position as one of the most popular concertos for the instrument not simply for its formal ingenuity, but even more for the brilliant way it “showcases the instrument in all its capacities and all its abilities, especially its register.” Julian elaborates: “One of the most interesting things about a cello is that the instrument can produce every note that the violin plays but that it also has a beautiful, low, burnished register.” As a result, the concerto can alternate flashy passages (which are, paradoxically, not always the most difficult to play) with darker, more introspective moments, including a passage toward the end that’s one of Julian’s favorites, “where the cello has a beautiful, singing theme in the lowest register. It just allows me to show the cello in its most idiomatic way, which is as a bass instrument in the bass register.” He also loves the coda, “a brilliant piece of cello writing. It’s sort of out of the blue, with a new theme and a gorgeous interplay between the solo cello and the first violin section. That brings the concerto full circle.”
The program concludes with the Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) (1804) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). The story of its dedication is often repeated. Beethoven had originally intended to dedicate the work to Napoleon, but ripped out the inscription when Napoleon declared himself emperor. Far more important than its programmatic intention, though, is its impact on the musical world—for the two hammer blows that launch the symphony can well be seen to crack the musical traditions of its time. The symphony shocked many of its early listeners for its length, its rhythmic vehemence, and especially what conductor Larry Loh calls its “unprecedented” treatment of harmony, in particular its “surprising shifts.” Indeed, the first movement wanders so much, harmonically, that it requires an exceptionally long coda to “affirm the E-flat major” of the movement. “Otherwise,” says Larry, “it would never feel like it had landed.” Yet in retrospect, while the work may have ushered in the romantic period (as many writers suggest), it didn’t definitively enter it—it is, as Larry sees it, a transitional work between the classical and romantic periods, which leaves a conductor in the position of having to decide where to strike the balance in performance.
What can we expect tonight? Larry certainly recognizes, even “embraces,” its “massive expansion, especially in terms of scale and expression.” Still, “from a stylistic point of view,” he says, “I approach it more like a classical symphony.” Thus, for example, Larry plays the opening two chords “absolutely in tempo.” He also avoids romanticizing the second movement funeral march. “It begins so unsuspectingly, and it’s kind of morbid and simple. I keep it really cold. I like to have the orchestra play the opening in an almost resigned way and then especially at the end. But there are so many surprises. There are places where he goes into C Major, where it’s almost like reflecting on better days and then it just returns, pulling you back.” Larry engages in a similar restraint in much of the third movement, too—a restraint that paradoxically increases the music’s power. “It’s very quiet for a long time, then, in a one bar crescendo, it just explodes. What I love to do with this is to repress any inclination to get loud, so when you have reached that moment, everything has to expand from pp to ff within one second. That’s just an incredible unleashing of excitement.” There’s a similar unleashing in the third movement’s furious coda, too. This leads us to the theme-and-variations finale “which has a similar frenetic energy, with all kinds of twists and turns.” No wonder the music, even more than two centuries after its composition, maintains its impact.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org