At the end of last week Sony Classical released their latest recording of the orchestra and choir MusicAeterna, performing with their conductor Teodor Currentzis. The group is based at the Perm Opera House, which is located at the foot of the Ural Mountains, about 1000 miles east of Moscow. This city was the base for the Leningrad State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet when they evacuated Leningrad during the Second World War. Currentzis is currently in the middle of a major opera project with Sony to record the three operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with librettos by Lorenzo Da Ponte. The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte have already been released, and Don Giovanni is scheduled to be available this coming fall.
The Amazon.com Web page for The Marriage of Figaro described Currentzis as “charismatic and provocative.” If so, he is certainly not the first conductor to take a provocative approach to Mozart; and we can all be reasonably confident that he will not be the last. However, his latest recording departs from eighteenth-century Vienna and turns, instead, to pre-Revolutionary Russia. The album couples Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky with Igor Stravinsky, which is less provocative than one might think, since Stravinsky was a great admirer of Tchaikovsky and even worked with the adaptation and rearrangement of his music.
The Tchaikovsky selection is the Opus 35 violin concerto in D major with soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Her selection certainly aligns with Currentzis’ disposition for the provocative. This is a performer more likely to be associated with conductors such as Peter Eötvös and forward-looking colleagues like Gidon Kremer, preferring composers such as György Ligeti and Giya Kancheli. The thought of Kopatchinskaja making a recording of Tchaikovsky is somewhat in the same league with Charlie Parker’s idea to make a recording with strings. (Yes, according to the notes that Phil Schaap compiled for the Verve anthology, this idea originated with Bird himself, rather than producer Norman Granz!)
As might be guessed, the result is not your grandfather’s Tchaikovsky, particularly if your grandfather happened to be Jascha Heifetz. Within the opening measures of her solo work, Kopatchinskaja is already seeking out idiosyncratic refractions of the thematic material that Tchaikovsky provided. One might almost say that she decided to treat the entire violin part as a cadenza.
Now there is nothing wrong with taking a cadenza further over the top than the composer had intended. Since Kremer’s name has now been dropped, one has only to think of the cadenza material that Alfred Schnittke prepared for Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 61 violin concerto in D major. However, Schnittke tended to sympathize with James Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus, who believed that history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awaken. Much of Schnittke’s music is a deliberately warped view of history, and he drags the listener into sharing that view.
On the other hand if there is anything historical about the stance Kopatchinskaja has taken towards Tchaikovsky, it is a view of the late nineteenth century as a time of decadence, particularly among those performing music. She may be striving to provoke with the same impact that Schnittke could summon. What results, however, sound like little more than affectation, colored at least in part with the antics of Nigel Kennedy (audibly, since there is no visual element to this recording).
The Stravinsky selection is the score he prepared for the ballet “Les noces” (the wedding), choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1923. In this case Stravinsky himself once evoked a connection to Joyce, noting how the latter could capture in words the complex counterpoint of a chaotic crowd scene. The spirit behind the ballet was the chaos of a folk setting for a wedding in which everything happens at once, very much in the spirit of the opening and closing tableaux of Michel Fokine’s choreography for “Petrushka,” set to music so expertly also by Stravinsky.
Currentzis catches some of that spirit, but he seems more interested having his vocal soloists lampoon the characters they are depicting (who vary from one episode to the next, often within a single scene). The result is an interpretation that is not as beset by affectation as the Tchaikovsky concerto was, but it still tends to labor under undue exaggeration. Taken as a whole, both of these performances definitely provoke; and through that provocation the listener is prompted to reflect on earlier interpretations. However, it would be entirely understandable if such reflection results in a better-informed craving for “the old ways.”
Finally, by way of clarification, regular readers of this site should not confuse MusicAeterna with MusicAEterna (note the slight change in capitalization), a piano trio based in San Francisco whose album At the Museum was discussed on this site in November of 2012.