Say this for Leon Botstein. He thinks big.
On Sunday afternoon, the academic maestro led his American Symphony Orchestra through the massive, sometimes masterly sprawl of Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang. Though drenched in swollen rhetoric, over-ripe romanticism and quasi- Wagnerian bombast, the music offered a fair share of creative revelations.
Schreker wrote the circuitous libretto in 1903 and finished the progressive score in 1909. The Frankfurt premiere in 1912 was a success, but Der ferne Klang disappeared from the repertory with the rise of national socialism.
The plot, a quaint fusion of 19th-century fantasy and petty-bourgeois morality, concerns a composer, Fritz, who abandons his beloved Grete in obsessive quest of an elusive ideal – the “distant sound” of the title. In his absence Grete endures gross degradation. Fritz returns and realises too late that the spiritual tones he sought emanated from the woman he left behind.
The mystical motive emerges from the celesta. Schreker wrapped his idealistic narrative in a score that throbs with passion one moment, floats in reverie the next, and occasionally succumbs to trite formulas.
His language is predicated on bold harmonic and thematic juxtapositions punctuated with percussive pomp. Vast orchestral outpourings envelope extended Sprechgesang exchanges and arioso indulgences. The inspirations are staggering, and even the lapses are fascinating.
Botstein, perhaps more scholar than conductor, stirred the thick symphonic broth with gusto if with little apparent concern for dynamic restraint or vocal frailty. The large cast was dominated by Yamina Maamar, a lovely German soprano who sounded radiant in Grete’s tortuous flights, sustained strength under pressure and remained expressive even when standing still.
Robert Künzli coped valiantly with the big, brutal challenge of Fritz, another Teutonic hero whose lines soar unreasonably high and stay unreasonably high. The others coped unevenly with fleeting cameos. Proper enunciation of the German text proved haphazard.
Europe has seen sporadic revivals of Der ferne Klang in recent decades, but Botstein’s sketchy concert was billed as a “western hemisphere premiere”. One hopes it will not be a dernière.
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