Munich Chamber Orchestra's precision sharpens the musical crown.
Thursday, February 22, 2001
If you''re satisfied with the way local string groups play together, then you will have no reason to continue reading this critique. However, if you attended the Munich Chamber Orchestra''s performance last week in Carmel, you witnessed a level of precision ensemble that was startling in its rarity. Indeed, you might have forgotten what a first-class ensemble sounded like, to say nothing of how it sharpens up the musical experience.
But this is the new, improved reputation of the MCO since it was taken over in 1995 by music director Christoph Poppen, a pupil of such violin luminaries as Oscar Shumsky, Nathan Milstein and Joseph Gingold. For this appearance, Poppen only played the baton, and led his band of 19 with a distinctive combination of crisp articulation in the right hand and smooth shaping with the left.
The program contained Benjamin Britten''s Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, Karl Amadeus Hartmann''s Symphony No. 4 and a violin concerto written by Felix Mendelssohn at age 12. Only the Britten has been heard here before.
For the Mendelssohn, a work in the tradition of Viotti, Daniel Giglberger provided a directly stated, unsentimental solo, snappy and clean in the outer movements, focused and warm in the andante. While the piece will never be hailed at the level of the composer''s famous E Minor concerto.
The Britten remains one of the 20th century''s great string works, astonishing in its richness of ideas and economy of means, early evidence of the composer''s mature genius. Performance polish and precision made it sparkle like a diamond necklace.
The Hartmann, begun in 1939 but not finished in this form until 1948, gives fresh life to the 12-tone style, sounding more like Alban Berg than any other predecessor. While it replaces tonal harmonies with chromatic ones, it concentrates its expression in gorgeous, long-limbed, sinewy melodies.
Like the legacy of Schoenberg and Webern, it is built on a solid foundation of forms and counterpoint. And it is passionate, especially in the slow, outer movements (that frame an animated dance). Solos by the concertmaster made a vivid impression in the first movement. Sonority swelled grandly as the piece rose to its climaxes.
This was an excellent reading of an excellent piece, even though, to this day, audiences struggle to embrace passionate expression in an intentionally atonal context.