benzedrine.jpg
The inspiration for Friday's performance.
Seattle Chamber Music Society

Benaroya Recital Hall, Friday

It's true that Shostakovich's Two Pieces and Mendelssohn's Octet have similarities: Both

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Seattle Chamber Music Society: Hell-Bent

benzedrine.jpg
The inspiration for Friday's performance.
Seattle Chamber Music Society

Benaroya Recital Hall, Friday

It's true that Shostakovich's Two Pieces and Mendelssohn's Octet have similarities: Both are written for the unusual combination of four violins, two violas, and two cellos, and, more tellingly, both are extroverted, even brash show-off pieces by young prodigies (Shostakovich was 21, Mendelssohn 16) flexing their muscles.

I didn't expect, though, to hear these two works, composed a century apart but played back to back on the second half of Friday night's Seattle Chamber Music Society concert, attacked the same way. Shostakovich's scherzo, the second of the Two Pieces, is one of his most outrageous, defiantly avant-garde works; especially after Soviet authorities began to apply ideological pressure a decade later, forcing him to curb his excesses, he rarely again wrote anything like this musical tornado, violent, slashing, and harshly dissonant. The performance was thrilling, and drew an elated response that proved an SCMS audience can not only accept but relish such an assault.

"Uh-oh," I said to myself during the opening bars of the Mendelssohn, taken at a pushed tempo that suggested the eight musicians hadn't come back down from the earlier excitement. It didn't bode well; an approach that was breathtaking in Shostakovich just made a mess here. In Mendelssohn, one of the most poised and craftsmanly composers ever, neatness counts; a hell-bent performance obscures the intricacy and detail that the teenage composer deployed so precociously. For example, there was the first violin's very first, and later repeated, phrase: three climbing arpeggios followed by a downward flourish that, thanks to the tempo, was muddled and nearly inaudible each time Augustin Hadelich played it.

The warmth and richness of sonority Mendelssohn so skillfully drew from eight string instruments, the feeling of youthful breadth and expansiveness, were absent from this performance. The music sounded crabbed, clenched; chords played by the full group were weirdly choked off (Benaroya Recital Hall's relatively unreverberant acoustic was only partly to blame). All was sacrificed, at least in the three fast movements, to a sort of Benzedrine-fueled agitation.

Composer/critic Virgil Thomson had a term for this--he called it the "wow technique" in a discussion of Arturo Toscanini's conducting: "He quite shamelessly whips up the tempo and sacrifices clarity and ignores a basic rhythm, just making the music, like his baton, go round and round, if he finds his audience's attention beginning to waver. No piece of music has to mean anything specific; every piece has to provoke from its hearers a spontaneous vote of acceptance." You couldn't hear a better example of a piece not meaning anything specific than Friday's reading of the Octet's quicksilver finale: unnuanced, uninflected, utterly static from start to finish in its frenzied scrubbing, and, despite all the energy expended, monotonous. It's rare that I leave a concert hall actually angry, but it was no fun to hear one of my favorite works in an emotionally dead performance that suggested that the players had zero understanding of what makes the work great--or worse, ignored it in order merely to cattle-prod the audience into a standing o.

Ah, but the plot thickens. Thomson's examination of the Toscanini "wow technique" brought in, for historical context, Wagner's similar observations about a certain early-19th-century conductor. I omitted Thomson's first two words from the above quote: "Like Mendelssohn, he quite shamelessly..." If you believe Wagner--and you do have to scrape a thick sludge of anti-Semitism off everything he wrote--Mendelssohn's podium approach to others' music was just the sort of thing the eight SCMS musicians did to his Octet. Which hardly excuses playing of such inelegance; whatever Mendelssohn may have done as a conductor, a piece so light, fleet, and painstakingly polished can't stand up to treatment this rough.

*****

SEATTLE CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY Benaroya Recital Hall, Third Avenue and Union Street. See seattlechambermusic.org for full schedule. $15-$45. Ends July 29.

 
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