Last night Davies Symphony Hall saw the welcome return of guest conductor Marek Janowski to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). Over the course of his past visits, Janowski has established himself as a highly perceptive interpreter, who always managed to bring an engaging sense of immediacy to the execution of his program selections. His program for this week’s visit was framed by two of the lesser-performed symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, beginning with Opus 93 (the eighth) in F major and concluding with Opus 60 (the fourth) in B-flat major. Between these two works, Janowski led SFS through its first performances of the preludes for each of the three acts of Hans Pfitzner’s opera Palestrina. Over the course of the entire evening, Janowski never let a music stand get in his way on the SFS podium; all selections were conducted from memory.
While the Pfitzner selections were probably “first contact” experiences for many (most?) in Davies last night, what was most memorable was Janowski’s ability to make his performances of Beethoven just as much voyages of discovery as any encounter with less-familiar music. This was particularly the case with Opus 93, which Beethoven composed in 1812. If one goes by the summaries of compositions and publications at the end of each of the chapters of Alexander Wheelock Thayer’s biography, 1812 was not a particularly productive year. This was because 1811 was a year of great physical strain, much of which Beethoven tried to ignore while working on his Opus 92 (seventh) symphony in A major. Thus, much of 1812 involved different means of recovering from 1811. It was also the year in which Beethoven wrote his “Immortal Beloved” letter while giving his body a rest at a spa in Teplitz.
In spite of its contexts, Opus 93 marks a significant revival of Beethoven’s capacity for wit. While the opening (Allegro vivace e con brio) movement simply abounds with good nature, this turns out to be a “softening up” process to prime the listener for no end of rib-poking that takes place during the remaining three movements. Like Leo Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each movement is amusingly eccentric in its own way. Janowski was keenly aware of all of those eccentricities; and, through his attentive chemistry with SFS, each of them effectively elicited responses ranging from a knowing smile to an uninhibited belly laugh. (Those knowing smiles could be seen on the faces of many of the players.)
In contrast Opus 60, composed in 1806, keeps its humor on a tighter leash. It is interesting that Beethoven labeled his third movement only Allegro vivace, avoiding any reference to a minuet or a scherzo. This may be due in part to his pushing the envelope on the traditional ternary form, allowing the trio to return more often than expected and ultimately befuddling the listener as to how the movement will actually end. (Beethoven would play a similar game in the Opus 69 cello sonata in A major, which he would compose in 1808.) There is also a madcap gaiety to the concluding movement. The tempo marking is Allegro ma non troppo; but Janowski decided to eschew the “non troppo,” turning it almost into an anticipation of Robert Schumann at his most manic.
The opening two movements, on the other hand, seem more occupied with taking the most traditional formal structures and endowing them with deeper dramatic qualities. This was where Janowski most excelled in making the case that there is always far more to the music than is marked on paper. He turned the introductory Adagio of the first movement into a study of edge-of-your-seat suspense, treating the transition into the Allegro vivace almost as if it were the eruption of a volcano. The following Adagio movement, on the other hand, is one of sharp contrasts, particularly in Beethoven’s selection of the levels of his dynamics. Janowski’s rhetorical approach to these wide swings of loudness may not have dropped any jaws, but they certainly raised the eyebrows.
All this made for a sharp contrast with the middle of the program. Composed between 1912 and 1915, Palestrina reinforced Pfitzner’s reputation as a staunch conservative, clinging to his traditional aesthetic values while all around him were practically reinventing the language of music. He called Palestrina a “Musical Legend in 3 acts,” rather than an opera; and it is, indeed, an account of a legendary episode in music history, when, through the disciplined and devout polyphony of his Missa Papae Marcelli (Pope Marcellus Mass), Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina managed to save polyphony from being banned from church services by the Council of Trent. In 2010 EuroArts released a compelling video of a 2009 performances by the Bayerischer Staatsoper staged by Christian Stücki, director of the Oberammergau Passion Plays, resulting in a strikingly modernist account of what amounts to a latter-day mystery play, a blend of past and present that probably would have met with Pfitzner’s approval.
Each of the three acts has its own “personality type,” which is reflected in the prelude that introduces it. In the first act Palestrina is old and thinking of retirement, particularly when one of his brightest students has become occupied with the new approach of accompanied melody. The second act reproduces the heated debating of the Council of Trent. Pfitzner describes the tempo of the prelude as being “With force and savagery,” which pretty much describes the political horse-trading that is about to ensue. The final act then celebrates Palestrina’s “legendary” achievement, which the prelude anticipates with suitably liturgical connotations. This also includes one of his most astute approaches to instrumentation, coupling the striking of a single chime with a soft stroke on a gong, conveying the illusion of the extended reverberation of a church bell.
Janowski’s direction provided a convincing account of each of these three preludes. Taken out of context, this music does not necessarily spell out the narrative thread of the opera. However, Janowski clearly appreciated those underlying “personality types.” Even if one did not know that legend itself, one could still appreciate that the contrasts across the three preludes were endowed with considerable dramatic potential.