California Bound
CMJ 2012 Day 1: New Zealand Showcase at (Le) Poisson Rouge

The MET Orchestra Performs Wagner and Strauss

by Michael Cirigliano II

The MET Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, Symon Bychkov, Michelle DeYoung

Photo credit: Richard Termine for the New York Times

The MET Orchestra made a triumphant return to Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon for the first of their three-concert season as an onstage orchestral force, bringing with them the works of two composers synonymous with German opera: the Richards, both Wagner and Strauss. Led by the energetic Semyon Bychkov, the ensemble produced fine renditions of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture and the Wesendonck Leider, as well as Strauss’ mighty ascent and descent up the proverbial mountain, Eine Alpensinfonie.

It was certainly not a quiet afternoon in the hall, with over 100 players needed for the Strauss alone [including 12 offstage horns, brass bands, and a pipe organ], but where the MET players truly excelled were the dark and mysterious chorales that pervaded all three of the works presented. The Overture’s opening moment returned several times over the course of the piece—brilliantly led by the principal horn—and each time the chorale provided a moment of introspection before progressively building to its final climax: a stunning apotheosis proclaimed by the full brass section above a maelstrom of descending string lines.

In the Wesendonck Lieder, the string body took center stage, providing a warm cushion of sound for mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung [filling in for Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, who unfortunately fell ill]. DeYoung’s presence was statuesque and confident, with every phrase allowing the listener a rare glimpse into Wagner’s genteel side. 

Inspired by the amateur poetry of Mathilde Wesendonck—the wife of one of Wagner’s key patrons, who may have also been the subject of an extramarital affair with the composer—Wagner created five brief songs that traverse a range of emotions, from childlike naiveté to tormented anguish. The second movement, “Be Still!,” delivered an unrelenting whirling string figure, with DeYoung lamenting the ever-moving wheel of time. Eventually the strings heed her call to cease and desist, creating an evocative moment where the solo voice’s descending line gently dovetails with a single oboe’s weeping melody. DeYoung was captivating throughout, easily delivering a range of colors comprising both hushed utterances and fiery declamations.

Composed of 22 continuous vignettes, Strauss’ Alpensinfonie lacks the dynamic narrative of his earlier tone poems, trading in the whimsy and majesty of Till Eulenspiegel and Ein Heldenleben for an overly long depiction of rock climbing. Along the way there are certainly vivid moments—the arrival and the peak and the sudden storm during the descent—but mostly the piece rings hollow in its repetitive presentation of the core material.

Bychkov led the orchestra well, providing an overarching sense of structure throughout, and the players put on a 50-minute display of ultimate virtuosity, but sometimes the final product is not a sum of its parts. Once the turgid opening chorale returned in the final moments, it was very much a relief: like the imaginary mountain-climbers, the audience is left feeling just as exhausted and depleted from the musical journey.