Give Piece a Chance

November 4, 2008

m2 The effort to program interesting and non-hackneyed repertory never need cause us to stoop to music of low quality. Not when there is still plenty of novelty among the prime products of acknowledged masters, providing standards by which also to judge the new works that come our way. It was with that in mind, and not a little excitement, that I went last night to hear an important and underperformed work of Messiaen coupled with one of Mendelssohn’s most extensive creations.

Messiaen’s Ascension I knew well in its later version for symphonic organ (for which he composed a different third movement) but had never heard the orchestral original live. The Mendelssohn Second Symphony (Lobgesang or Hymn of Praise) I had last heard live in childhood but had studied closely ever since, frankly carrying a torch for a masterpiece that has become largely unknown.

The Messiaen suite brought no great surprises. It comes from his mid-twenties, a few years before the prison camp, the Quartet for the End of Time, and the great years of master-teaching at the Paris Conservatory. It contains not unformed Messiaen but essential Messiaen, being much in the personal but cohesive style of his motet “O sacrum convivium” of 1937. The first two and fourth movements could well be conceived as organ works and then orchestrated (never forgetting that Messiaen was a master improvisor and often called his instrument at La Trinitée “my laboratory”), though I know of no evidence that they were. But in replacing the third movement with a new one for the organ version, Messiaen shows that he definitely distinguishes between the two media, since — though, given the kind of 19th-century organ he played throughout his career, he was capable of transcribing the whole suite for that instrument — he chose to replace the idiomatically orchestral movement with an equally idiomatic organ movement. He thus replaced an orchestral “Praise him with the trumpet, praise him with the cymbal” with organ pipes’ “Outbursts of joy of a soul before the glory of Christ which is its own glory.”

But the revelation for me came with the Mendelssohn. Not only is the Lobgesang alone amidst Mendelssohn’s catalogue in its scale and extent, but it is unique for its precipitous decline in critical esteem. It has suffered by a wrong-headed and irrelevant comparison, much forwarded by Wagner, with Beethoven’s entirely dissimilar choral symphony. But it once even exceeded the Beethoven in popularity (which may have been part of Wagner’s problem with it, coming as it did from one of his contemporaries). Having greatly admired its vast palette, thematic integrity, and music-historical allusion all these years, I have been at a loss to comprehend how it could have fallen out of favor. No longer. I have now heard why.

A conductor of major credentials, conducting very respectable forces in the world’s most famous concert hall, showed that he had no discernible understanding at all — and hence no appreciation — of the work. To give but one example: in some of the most advanced music Mendelssohn ever penned, a tenor repeatedly sings (using here the translation that was sung in Mendelssohn’s lifetime), “Watchman will the night soon pass?” to be answered in the orchestra by a passage of decidedly post-Beethovenian dissonance. Nothing could possibly be clearer than the stentorian nature of this music. It was certainly not the young tenor’s fault that he was no Jon Vickers, but even if this Heldentenor-like rôle is laid on the back of a very light-voiced singer, as it was here, that still doesn’t explain the caressing, even whining tones with which this memorable scene from Isaiah was completely ruined. In the extraordinary score, the tenor’s increasingly anxious inquiries about the passing of the night build to a mighty crisis when everything stops, producing the silence of a night that is not without terrors, and a clarion soprano answers him with a thrilling, starkly unaccompanied declaration: “The night is departing, departing!”

In the performance last night, the poor soprano was given no expressive lead-up to this great pronouncement, no drama to respond to, no noticeable silence to break. And she understandably sang it with all the triumph with which she might have announced “Dinner is served.”

Mendelssohn’s intended devastating torrent of orchestral and choral sound that ensues, and that used to thrill audiences as they were charged to “put on the armour of light!”, became simply one more Victorian chorus to be gotten through — and at a brisk, matter-of-fact tempo that seemed almost contemptuous of the movement’s grand Handelian manner.

This was only the most heart-breaking of the disappointments that, to the conductor, evidently seemed utterly characteristic of a work whose failure was thus preordained. When one of the most celebrated duets of its day, “Ich harrete des Herrn” (known to generations of music-lovers in Sunday-afternoon music-making as “I waited for the Lord”) was just galloped through as though the delicious melodic gestures and chains of suspensions were just something to be gotten over, one needed no further explanation of why many of our contemporaries snigger about this work and tar much of Mendelssohn’s music with the empty gentility that they hear in vapid performances.

A.E. Housman somewhere wrote that generations of editors of classical texts so often emended the original with their own absurd changes that they began to think of absurdity as characteristic of the original authors. It is evident that some interpreters of some repertory hear their own performance and jump to the conclusion that their miscarriage represents the best that the composer could do. This is presumptuous and dangerous, because the loss in such cases is a comprehensive one.

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