Hail and farewell

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 27, 2007

Rattle shaped the often chamber-like music with great rhythmic vitality and rhythmic alertness. Phrases were no less poignant for having a little bite. Some elements of mystery might have been even more mysterious, more hushed, as in those final dying phrases accompanying Quasthoff’s disappearing repetitions of the word “Ewig” (“ever”) as he drifted farther and farther away from the world he cherishes. But it’s hard to imagine a performance more loving.

The concert began with the 81-year-old Hungarian composer György Kurtág’s extraordinary 1993 Stele, his first piece for full orchestra. It was commissioned by the Berlin Phil; the Tanglewood student orchestra played the American premiere in 1995, and the BSO first did it under Christoph von Dohnányi in 2004. A “stele” is a funeral stone, and in the last of the three slow movements, an ominous funeral march expanding on a short piano piece Kurtág wrote in memory of his piano teacher, András Mihály, the orchestra seems to reproduce the tremors of the ground under the marching feet. The Adagio first movement sighs; the Lamentoso disperato begins with snaps of a whip (a life cut short?) and weeps with agonized, lamenting breaths. Quarter-tones, weird chords, and surprising sound combinations (high winds, piano, and rustling cymbals) keep this compelling, unsettling, and moving.

WGBH will broadcast the Berliners’ Carnegie Hall performance of Das Lied on SymphonyCast December 2 at 3 pm; James Levine will conduct the piece with the BSO April 17 and 18.

I left the powerful third installment of the Borromeo String Quartet’s complete Shostakovich cycle at the Gardner Museum early a week ago Sunday to hear the St. Lawrence String Quartet (another Celebrity Series event) at Jordan Hall. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy and pianist Kevin Murphy (her husband) joined the quartet for Roberto Sierra’s Songs for the Diaspora, his setting of seven mediæval Sephardic poems, a piece commissioned for these performers by the Celebrity Series through Music Accord. The songs are attractive, painless, and a little obvious. The same forces began with an effective, supercharged rendition of Chausson’s lush, Romantic Chanson perpetuelle, which is about a young woman’s suicide when her lover leaves her.

Then the Murphys alone did four Schubert songs. I was glad to hear them precede the famous “Die Forelle” (“The Trout”) with the much rarer “Liebhaber in allen Gestalten” (“Sweethearts of All Kinds”), in which the singer wishes she were a fish and promises not to swim away; it helped bring to the surface the slyer sexual message behind “Die Forelle.” Grant Murphy’s expressive though tiny soprano barely carried into the hall; the piano was consistently too loud.

The concert concluded with Beethoven’s Opus 130 String Quartet, which was played with its original finale, the huge Große Fuge (“great fugue”). The St. Lawrence players are impressive, sometimes even aggressive. They emphasize chords rather than lines, often burying wonderful melodies in the thicker textures of the harmonies. The Borromeos (who arrived at Jordan Hall in time to hear the Beethoven) are more sensitive to the main lyric line; supporting players courteously step back to let the melody rise. Melody is less crucial to the Große Fuge, so that worked better here. But playing the Große Fuge with so much more force than they did the rest of the quartet, and riding roughshod over what’s special about the rest, confirmed the opinion of the original critics who thought this vast movement was too big and complicated for what leads up to it.

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