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November 5 - 12, 1998

[Music Reviews]

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Master pieces

Thomas Quasthoff's Mahler, lost Mozart, and Andrew Rangell's Bach

by Lloyd Schwartz

Four years ago, the BSO offered its first performance in nearly 20 years of one of the greatest and strangest works of the century, Mahler's symphonic song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde (his setting of German translations of ancient Chinese poems), led with youthful impetuosity and aching nostalgia by Metropolitan Opera honcho James Levine (who'll be returning next month for Haydn's Creation). Last week it was Seiji Ozawa, in his first shot at this masterpiece with the BSO. It had some intensity, though the notes remained mainly just notes, and not all of them sounded as beautiful or as delicate as they should have.

The BSO strings have been in fine shape lately (the gorgeous cello playing in the slow movement of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony the week before almost compensated for the squareness of principal guest conductor Bernard Haitink's beat and conception). But in Mahler's crucial oboe part, assistant principal oboist Keisuke Wakao had neither the insinuating tone nor the musical sensitivity of retired principal oboist Alfred Genovese; Wakao plays the oboe -- literally -- as if it were a trumpet. In one extraordinary passage of "Der Abschied" ("The Parting"), the last song, Mahler's profound half-hour-long leavetaking from everything he holds dear, the flute is left all alone with the soloist. Jacques Zoon sounded like a bereft nightingale fluttering through the pines, warbling to the singer awaiting his final departure from his mysterious "friend."

And here's the big news. Mahler called Das Lied "A Symphony for Tenor and Contralto (or Baritone) and Orchestra." Jessye Norman breezed in for the Saturday-night concert (and next week's gig at Carnegie Hall), but in the three surrounding performances, the "alto" was German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff, making his Boston debut in a part he was singing for the first time. And he was extraordinary.

The first thing you notice about Quasthoff is his disability. He was a thalidomide baby, born in 1959. He's barely four feet tall, and neither his hands nor his arms are fully developed. But he can sing! His timbre reminds me of Sanford Sylvan's, a little darker, with a rich, full, even tone all the way up and all the way down. "Warm," "honest," "natural" were the adjectives I kept hearing in the Symphony Hall corridors and stairwells afterward. He connects effortlessly with both notes and words in a way that seems beyond art. "Sunshine mirrors their slender limbs," he sings in the fourth song, "Von der Schönheit" ("Of Beauty") -- and you could see that glint and feel the heat. And by ever so subtly leaning on and stretching out the vowels in "dunkel" and "heissen," he let you into the "darkness" and the "searing" of the proud girl's gaze as she watches the young man she secretly yearns for gallop by on his horse. Quasthoff caught but didn't overplay the bitterness of "Der Einsame im Herbst" ("The Solitary in Autumn"), and he melted into the repeated last word of "Der Abschied": "Ewig" ("Ever. Forever.").

Quasthoff's partner was Canadian-born Wagnerian tenor Ben Heppner, who may well have been even more expansive than he was with Levine four years ago. His voice is large but very focused, and he stood at the very lip of the stage, leaning on the conductor's podium for balance, to be as close to the audience (and as far from the brasses?) as possible. Getting drowned out is a built-in risk for Mahler's tenor, and Ozawa didn't go out of his way to keep the orchestral lid on. In "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde" ("The Drinking Song of Earth's Despair," in BSO violinist/celesta player Jerome Rosen's eloquent translation) and "Der Trunkene im Frühling" ("The Drunkard in Spring"), Heppner suggested an inebriated instability, yet his delicacy mirrored the glittering innocence in "Von der Jugend" ("Of Youth"), with its green-and-white porcelain pavilion mirrored upside-down in the water, as seductive an image of heaven as any in music.

The witty program began with a very different kind of Chinese music: Bartók's suite from his sado-erotic pantomime, The Miraculous Mandarin. This is one of Ozawa's showpieces, and though it was lively, it was neither very lubricious nor threatening. The clarinet "plays" a prostitute beckoning to customers from her window; William R. Hudgins made a lovely but awfully chaste sound. The trombones were hornier. But Ozawa suggested a genial carnival atmosphere more appropriate to Petrushka than to Bartók's sinister demi-monde.

The big coup of Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque was giving the modern premiere of the 1789 singspiel Der Stein der Weisen, oder Die Zauberinsel ("The Philosopher's Stone, or The Magic Island"), one of the series of four fairy-tale operas produced by the same group that a year later would present Mozart's Die Zauberflöte ("The Magic Flute"). It's been long known that Mozart had a hand in this work, perhaps the orchestration of a charming "Meow" duet -- a version of which exists in his own handwriting. Last year, a front-page headline in the New York Times announced that Iowa musicologist David J. Buch had discovered in a Hamburg library a manuscript score that identified the composers of each musical number: J.B. Henneberg (who conducted The Magic Flute), Benedikt Schack (Mozart's first Tamino), Franz Xavier Gerl (Mozart's first Sarastro), Emmanuel Shikaneder (the impresario and librettist of The Magic Flute and its first Papageno), and Mozart himself, who is credited with two additional numbers no one suspected.

"You couldn't by any stretch of the imagination say that Mozart was a major figure in this opera," Buch said at the pre-concert lecture, but the music identified as his was surely written by an "experienced" composer with "a sense of comedy and drama." In performance, the "Mozart" music sounds like Mozart, if not like anything out of his top drawer. The density and color of the harmonies go beyond anything else in the score. But even more striking are the numerous similarities to The Magic Flute, structural (two acts, two extended finales, strophic songs), vocal (parallel voice types for similar characters), and dramaturgical (warring spirits, abductions, magical devices portrayed instrumentally on the flute, comic and solemn music in dramatic juxtaposition, armored men, even a birdcage).

The Philosopher's Stone helps place Mozart's "unique" late masterpiece in a fascinating historical/theatrical context, and it fills in the blanks for this difficult, otherwise unproductive year in Mozart's life. Buch thinks that despite all this evidence, scholars over the past century have been reluctant to associate Mozart with such a low form of collaborative theater. Shikaneder's convoluted libretto even includes jokes about pubic "beards."

Instead of that lengthy libretto, Pearlman had director Robert Scanlan put together a skillful running narrative (the original will be on the new recording), which was read with affectionate irony by ART regular Alvin Epstein and the smashing dancer/actress/director Carmen de Lavallade -- whose meowing, among other outstanding qualities, was infinitely more convincing and emotionally shaded than soprano Jane Giering-De Haan's.

Except for Boston's Sharon Baker as the birdcage-wielding genie (the magic bird inside it will sing only for the purest maiden; four wanna-be virgins fail the test), the singing, by visitors from the national vocal circuit, was professional but pedestrian at best. I second Globe critic Richard Dyer's lament that Baker didn't sing all the soprano parts herself. One could think of a handful of other "local" artists who perform regularly with more character and better technique. The orchestra, however, needed no apologies, given Christopher Krueger's magic flute, Marc Schachman's eloquent oboe, Jean Rife's solemn horn, and timpanist John Grimes's startling thunderclaps and anvil pounding. Pearlman, at his liveliest, kept the long evening going at a fizzy pace.

The music, alas, has only minimal charm, and even the Mozart sections are too brief and insufficiently developed to be satisfying. Still, The Philosopher's Stone is worth knowing for everything it tells us about Mozart's last year, his sources of inspiration, and (as if we didn't already know) how much greater he was than everyone else around him.

Any concert by pianist Andrew Rangell is an event, especially since he's returned to performing after an extended period of recuperation from a serious hand injury incurred by overuse. He began October with a fascinating program at the Longy School: teasing-and-singing Haydn, Carl Nielsen's edgy 1919 Suite, Schoenberg's neo-Baroque Suite (Opus 25, from 1925 -- his first major 12-tone work), flickering Scriabin, and demonic though fragmented Chopin.

He ended the month at Boston Conservatory's charming (as in Victorian mead hall) but airless Seully Hall, playing Bach, all six partitas, among Bach's most inspired and inventive keyboard works. And Schoenberg again ("one of the most fearful spirits still haunting us," Rangell announced at the Halloween performance). Since Bach's partitas are suites of dances, this was the perfect context for Schoenberg's "oblique take on Baroque dance rhythms." And Rangell revealed Schoenberg's Suite for all its mock elegance (in that pinkies-out Menuet), deranged dislocations, and grinning angularities (like Picasso's versions of Velázquez).

One of Rangell's gifts is the ability to spotlight Bach's sometimes overlooked melodies in the midst of the contrapuntal complexity. His partitas were soulful, songful, and emotive, full of pianistic coloration, yet kept from falling into romantic excess by a consistent rhythmic incisiveness and a touching, almost ethical austerity. Even the brilliance had an inwardness. This was Bach from whom that serious Bach student Chopin could learn everything: shapely preludes; skipping courantes; searching sarabandes; high-stepping gavottes and elegant minuets; scintillating gigues; fantasies, burlesques, scherzos, and capriccios full of boisterous humor and darker undercurrents. Each partita added up to some large-scale triumphal utterance. The opening Toccata of the Sixth Partita took on an almost Handelian grandeur. Although it was the sweetness of those little tunes everywhere that broke one's heart.

Rangell made even the ornaments speak, though his fingers can still get a little tongue-tied. "It's a struggle," he remarked at a post-concert reception. But in every other way his playing was both secure and illuminating. His next comeback recital (December 13 at NEC) is a program of variations ranging from Sweelinck and Beethoven to Christian Wolff's Eight Days a Week Variations (based on the Beatles). Who else's alley are these likely to be farther up?

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