Saturday, March 3, 2018

Bruch, Mahler, Schumann, Strauss: The heart of Austro-German romanticism in the ISO's short weekend

Hans Graf achieves good results as the ISO's podium guest.
Something about the outreach into new realms that the Romantic revolution made possible encouraged composers to look closely at the end of this life and the possible bliss to come hereafter. Beethoven's Ninth encouraged all sorts of visionary thinking, and music is arguably a better vehicle for that kind of thing than its sister arts.

It's astonishing that the 19th-century Austro-German tradition, which is at the heart of the repertoire even today, has several examples of musical ruminations on death and the hereafter from the pens of young men. On Friday the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra played one of them: Richard Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration," a product of his symphonic poem phase — an outward-flung tendril away from classicism using words as a shaping force behind the music.

Longtime favorite guest conductor Hans Graf led the performance to conclude the Hilbert Circle Theatre concert, which also included works by Robert Schumann, Max Bruch, and Gustav Mahler. The program will not be repeated.

The precocious Strauss hit his stride early, and as a genre the symphonic poem has his brand stamped upon it. The explicit literary scenario here traces the sinking toward death of an ill creative artist. His demise is interrupted by recollections of youthful struggles and triumphs, the account of which loads the score with some burly symphonic spectacle before mortality exacts its inevitable toll and serenity suffuses the whole. Only Strauss could have turned dying into something so picturesque.

The skillful concoction moves some listeners to tears, the way another composition by a near-contemporary, Mahler's Symphony No. 2 ("Resurrection"), does dependably. Mahler wrote that monumental work in his late 20s and early 30s; Strauss turned out "Death and Transfiguration" at 25. At the same age, and roughly a generation later, Arnold Schoenberg wrote his "Transfigured Night," a work for string sextet, at the tail end of High Romanticism; the younger composer's secular idea of transfiguration hangs upon a couple's achieving a new paradigm for their troubled romance.

Mahler's and Strauss' pieces rest on an implicitly sacred foundation, without spelling out Christian redemption. That ideological plane is the province of requiem settings, in which the 19th century was peculiarly rich. Yet music can paint "the peace which passeth all understanding" especially well, and the transfiguration part of Strauss' work was particularly well rendered on Friday. It was so from the moment a rising four-note phrase first takes on the character of a motif. The phrase is capped by a sigh of sorts, but often appears in a form that invariably brings "How Dry I Am" to mind.

Also admirable in this performance was the depiction of the man's ominous weakness at the beginning. It emerged as if out of nowhere, resting upon the subdued timpani pulse laid down by Jack Brennan. As the performance unfolded, Graf managed well the shifting planes of expressive intensity.

Vadim Gluzman played the durable Bruch G minor.
The second-half companion to "Death and Transfiguration" was Mahler's "Blumine," a wisp of lyrical inspiration that featured Conrad Jones' solo trumpet in this performance. This first-chair player is in his second season with the ISO. On Friday, the steadiness and sweetness of his tone and phrasing were positively Hersethian, than which I can think of no higher praise. The piece itself is a tender trifle, but made an effective prelude to the weightiness of the Strauss.

The concert's first half was distinguished by the return guest appearance of Vadim Gluzman as soloist in Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor. Gluzman has a rich, almost earthy sound, smoothly produced with evident confidence and consistency up through the high register of his instrument. His playing had a singing luster even in the double-stopping vigor of the finale. The performance was marked by seamless rapport between podium and soloist. The accelerating rush in the final measures was expertly coordinated.

Coordination was a little bit off in the Scherzo of Schumann's Overture, Scherzo and Finale, which opened the concert. Effectively a symphony without a slow movement, the piece jelled in the Overture, showing a flexibility and zest not adequately captured in the ISO's Koss Classics recording made long ago with Raymond Leppard at the helm.

The blurring in the Scherzo when Graf pushed the tempo forward cleared up well toward the end of that movement. The finale featured well-pointed dotted rhythms and an ensemble shine that held aloft the typically feverish good cheer of this bipolar composer — another genius in the Austro-German tradition with an often gloomy literary bent.