By Scott MacClelland
SAVORING Otto Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor overture, finding the tasty morsels of Antonín Dvořák’s rarely heard Piano Concerto in G Minor and finally chewing through Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D Minor made for an oddly unbalanced meal in Max Bragado-Darman’s last Monterey Symphony concert of the current season. In their Sunday afternoon performance in Carmel the orchestra and soloist Michael Noble could not be faulted for delivering the scheduled three course menu in excellent fettle. The appetizer sparkled with light Viennese operetta character. The main course, the Franck, inherently dark, ponderous and top-heavy with brass, recalled the long-haul symphonies of Anton Bruckner—though there is no evidence that Franck ever heard any of those writhing Wagnerian serpents who inhabit the forests of upper Austria between the low-lying Danube and the alpine headwaters of the Rhine. In between came the Dvořák, a misfit that promised—or at least proposed—more sizzle than its composer gave it. (“I see that I am unable to write a concerto for a virtuoso,” he wrote. “I must think of other things.”)
In his defense, the piano was not Dvořák’s instrument. Of course he played it competently, in public, and made marvelous use of it in his chamber music with strings. Moreover, it was his first foray in the concerto form. (His violin concerto, four years later, and the great cello concerto of 1895, lay to rest any doubt as to his mastery of virtuoso writing.) Further, no one familiar with his mature works could fail to recognize the composer’s fingerprints, right from the start, including some Bohemian folkloric allusions. Unlike the concert program notes, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that Brahms’ earlier First Piano Concerto was a template; that work was the German composer’s first attempt at a symphony. And anyway, Dvořák does subscribe faithfully to the classical concerto form, safely building the long first movement around two major themes. (Various pianists have made emendations to the original, including Czech pianist Rudolf Firkušný, its most-determined 20th century champion, but who finally went back to the original. “For all the so-called clumsiness in the piano writing the original is far purer than any subsequent revision and more truly characteristic of the young Dvořák.”)
The andante sostenuto was a lovely seduction, more urban than rural in flavor. The boldly robust finale sounded closest to the familiar Dvořák, coming as it did just before the music that would put him on the map, the Slavonic Dances. Noble, who played his part from the complete score—hence the rapid-fire page turning—told me during the interval that the piece is not so easy to play. That no doubt explains why this was its regional premiere. For an encore, he sensitively offered the second intermezzo, in E, from Brahms’ Fantasien, Op 116.
The Nicolai and the Franck have nothing in common, save that both composers died soon after the premieres, Nicolai from a stroke at age 38 in 1849 two months after his charming Shakespearean singspiel was first staged, and Franck, from pleurisy and related illness at age 67 in 1890, a year and half the premiere of the symphony.
The Nicolai overture was commonly heard on classical pops concerts of years ago, a neat fit with light fare from such contemporaries as Franz von Suppé, Adolphe Adam, Johann Strauss and—from a later generation Emil von Řezníček and Franz Lehár—for whose music the goal is always clean, snappy playing and gaiety of spirit.
Franck’s ultimate claim to fame is his remarkable economy of means, his ability to recycle ideas throughout a piece, not unlike Beethoven of the Fifth Symphony, only more so. In the Symphony in D Minor, every new idea—many derived from earlier ones—reappears in ever-mounting iterations. The last movement is chockful of everything that came before. Perhaps ironically, the heavy orchestration seems at odds with French aesthetic sensibilities of the delicate touch and transparency of textures. Those qualities run true from the Baroque though the 20th century. There are exceptions of course, Berlioz was capable of great bombast, though he didn’t make a dungeon out of it. Saint-Saëns likewise on both counts. D’Indy and Lalo could get swept away. And certainly Olivier Messiaen, in the 20th century, “piling up decibels as if he were jealous of the sonic boom,” quoting the words of Igor Stravinsky. The most magical moment in the Franck was the beginning of the middle movement, with the solo harp, cor anglais, violas, horn and bassoons. But the sustained dark passages, thick textures, chromatic melodic lines and loud brass put Franck in a place all his own. Only the inflated grandiosity of Franz Liszt’s orchestral music compares. And, by the way, Franck right at the start helped himself, without attribution, to the first theme from Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Preludes. Having died a couple of years earlier, Liszt didn’t care.