Music Note:
Fake Mozart by Mozart; Real Mozart by Strauss
Orpheus at Carnegie, with Arabella Steinbacher

On Friday night, Kathleen had a reunion dinner that I wanted to go to — it’s no surprise that, although I’ve kept up with hardly anyone that I went to school with, a lot of Kathleen’s former classmates (and their husbands) have become good friends — but I thought that I had better show up for the last of this season’s Orpheus concerts at Carnegie Hall. My attendance record has been pretty bad, but what really got me to go was the challenge of writing about it later. Nothing is more difficult than writing about concerts, and most serious music reviews are stunningly uninformative. (They may be packed with information, but not about the performances.) There is also the ephemerality: nothing that can be said about a concert is going to bring it back; even a recording won’t bring it back.

Consider the concert that opened the season, back in October. As an encore, after Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, Garrick Ohlsson played Chopin’s most famous waltz, and he played it as if it had never been played before and would never be played so well again. I remember the intensity of that feeling very well, but I couldn’t begin to tell you what it was about the playing that took the music from exceptional to unique. It was an illusion, in any case. I’ve heard the waltz played several times since then and never thought to myself, “but this is not as good as Ohlsson!” The magic, I conclude, was the pianist’s ability to infect the waltz with the peculiar excitement of the piano concerto’s finale. This is not to say that he made Chopin sound like Beethoven — not at all. He simply made it seem, given what we had just heard, that this was the way to play the waltz, and the only way. He made it bigger than it had ever been — immense, articulate, and perfect. You had to be there. Even if you had heard Garrick Ohlsson play the same music half an hour later, in another hall or at someone home, and some sort of computer were able to document the fact that he played the waltz in exactly the same way twice, you wouldn’t have been there, at Carnegie Hall, after the Beethoven, listening with us. There is more to music than notes. 

So then: for all my verbiage, I’ve said nothing about what Chopin’s waltz sounded like in October. And that was my point. I can’t tell you about the concert. I can only talk about what I heard. That alters the challenge. 

Friday’s concert turned out to have a wonderfully old-fashioned flavor, because although Arabella Steinbacher, the Bavarian violinist who played Hartmann and Mozart, is a slip of a girl, she plays like Jascha Heifetz. She plays like Jascha Heifetz the way that Garrick Ohlsson played Chopin’s waltz in the only correct manner: You had to be there, and I was. The Hartmann, a Concerto funèbre written at the start of World War II and revised twenty years later, was just about the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. Its brighter moments were saturated with a melancholy that reminded me of Korngold’s violin concerto. Hartmann’s tonality wanders further from the heavenly steps than Korngold’s, but it is never harsh. Which is surprising, given Hartmann’s fondness for supersonic high notes that, even though they were perfectly sounded, must have pained a few ears in the audience. The string band was both lush and austere, like an extraordinarily soft but short-napped velvet. Ms Steinbacher played with complete authority and more than a touch of “longhair” romanticism. Where a violinist such as Gil Shaham will persuade me that he has just written the Beethoven concerto, maybe yesterday, maybe earlier this afternoon, imbuing it with an ineffable up-to-the-minute-ness, an artist in Arabella Steinbacher’s mold takes me back to my childhood, when the music seemed ancient even when it was new, and violinists were pre-eminent brooders. 

And then what did she play, after the interval? Two pieces that a) haven’t appeared on a concert program in the past fifty years, having been overplayed to death in the preceding century and b) never never never ought to be played side by side — or so you would think. I’m talking about Mozart’s Adagio, K 261, and Rondo, K 373, for violin and orchestra. These stand-alone pieces, written long after the five violin concertos, have a fluty quality that suggests a Meissen bust of Beethoven playing the piano, if you can imagine such a thing. To put it another way, they seem incredibly fake — much too pretty to be genuine. (Mirabell rather than Reber Mozartkügeln, if you will.) This is the sort of music that has Mozart the reputation for cuteness that he never quite lives down. (Maybe Leopold wrote them.) What made listening to all that gorgeousness side by side bearable was the violinist’s venerable tone. I was reminded that Bavaria is one of Europe’s more conservative corners, and I don’t mean its politics only. And that’s what made the pieces’ meretriciousness so moving: the violinist’s complete faith in them.

I have not been able to identify Ms Steinbacher’s solo encore, which was extremely old-fashioned. Lots of gypsy bravura. What it reminded me of, more than anything else, was the show-off opening of Ravel’s Tzigane. Also Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy (but minus the laughs). This was fiddling!

At the end, we had Haydn’s London Symphony, the 104th. The last. Did Haydn know that it was his hundred and fourth when he wrote it? It seems unlikely. Did he know that it would be his last? The most exciting part of the performance was the Andante, which alternates an almost banal tick-tock motif with abrupt outtakes from Beethoven’s stormier development sections. The impression conveyed by the orchestra was that Haydn really had no idea of how to bridge these modes, but that his raw blurting would inspire Beethoven to figure it out. I used to think that Beethoven took Haydn’s classicism and roughed it up a bit, making it romantic. Now I think that what Beethoven did was just about the opposite: he smoothed Haydn’s sometimes jocular juxtapositions and gave them an Olympian integrity that is actually more classical than Haydn’s originals. 

The first work on the program was the big surprise: Richard Strauss’s Serenade for Winds, Op 7. I had never heard this before and I wasn’t looking forward to it; really early Strauss can sound post-Wagnerian in a sawdusty way. But the Serenade turned out to be far more like the composer’s great late wind serenades, written in the 1940s (and superbly recorded by Orpheus decades ago), than I should have thought possible. Although not so magical, so shimmery as late or even mature Strauss, the music contemplated the same sort of beauty, at once comfortable, sensuous, and transcendant — it is the beauty of a dreaming child. Not yet twenty years old when he wrote the piece, in 1881, Strauss nevertheless demonstrates a complete understanding of Mozart’s Gran Partita, also known as the Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments, and is itself scored for thirteen musicians. (No double-bass, though.) Unlike the Adagio and Rondo that would come later in the evening, the Serenade was far too Mozartean to sound like Mozart. The Orpheans’ performance was extraordinarily convincing. Without ever playing too loudly, they filled every cubic inch of Carnegie’s space with musical volume — I had never understood that term so well before. There was a moment when the four horns had a gloriously burnished passage just to themselves, and this just about stopped my heart.

I was disappointed to hear the audience’s applause peter out while all the musicans were still on stage. I had just heard something excitingly lovely, but perhaps I was the only one. I had to be there!