Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Lorin Maazel's gifts included getting a symphony's vast emotional palette under exquisite control

Lorin Maazel left a strong legacy with several orchestras.
I never had the experience of attending a concert Lorin Maazel conducted, but my record collection includes some outstanding performances under his baton, two of which I want to loft kudos for here. Maazel, a child-prodigy conductor with a restless adult career in several of the world's major music capitals, died Sunday at his Virginia estate, age 84.

Both of the favorites in my collection were recorded with the Cleveland Orchestra, of which Maazel was music director between 1972 and 1982.

In the album of the nine Beethoven symphonies (Columbia), Maazel and the Clevelanders play No. 2 in B-flat about as well as I've ever heard it. I'm struck by his evidently high comfort level with the work's oddities, some of them harmonic, a few of them formal. The slow introduction to the first movement and the outsize codas to that movement and to the finale are beautifully handled.

The slow movement, Larghetto, features some of Beethoven's gentlest lyrical writing. It needs to be indulged and believed in as if the whole of Romanticism were being adumbrated, without self-consciousness about fleeting rambunctiousness. This feeling is intact throughout. Maazel at his best could get orchestras to illuminate emotion while respecting the composer's discipline.

In the finale of this Beethoven symphony, the conductor brings out a clarity and wit that approaches Mozart in the Da Ponte operas or Haydn in his London symphonies. The coda is a miracle. Michael Steinberg truly makes this comparison:  "The 'Eroica' [No. 3] is open revolution; the Second is revolution within the conventions of eighteenth-century high comedy." Go to this recording to hear what he means.

Shostakovich's discipline is sometimes harder to acknowledge, particularly in the later symphonies. In No. 5 in D minor, though, there can be little doubt how masterly the composer's control is in every phrase. Despite disagreement about what the apparently triumphant finale "means"-- Shostakovich said that "all my symphonies are tombstones" — the work has excited admiration among listeners and critics from the first.

Maazel and the Clevelanders were expertly recorded by Telarc in this interpretation. From the carefully declamatory string statements that open the first movement, you are aware of being in the presence of music-making of unerring conviction and focus. Details continue to be firmly etched. The brief Scherzo — often correctly pegged as being in the spirit of Prokofiev and Mahler — in its more lightly scored passages even suggests the chaste fun of the neoclassical Stravinsky.

The third-movement Largo, almost always a moving experience, has a special quality in this performance of having firm momentum despite the slow tempo.  And the brassy outbursts of the finale are firmly balanced and brilliantly set against calmer and more reflective episodes before the ascent to a conclusive glory. Tempos seem a little out of whack at times: the opening march is too fast; the brassy, controversial coda, not quite slow enough. Nonetheless, Maazel's understanding of the music's strengths never falters. At his best, he made his insights work on the heart.