For its final encore at carnegie Hall’s opening concert of the season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra sailed into “Tico-Tico,” a Brazilian specialty number made famous 60 years ago by that small icon of forties film camp, pop organist Ethel Smith. That gives you an idea of the easy-listening musical tone of the evening, an affair dominated by the Spanish-flavored works of Manuel de Falla and Maurice Ravel. Nothing wrong with that – New York’s musical institutions have launched their new seasons with far less substantial fare, and the works heard on this occasion are popular for very good reasons. Still, it seemed a bit much for conductor Daniel Barenboim to suggest that the four Ravel scores – Rapsodie Espagnole, Pavane Pour une Infante Défunte, Alborada del Gracioso, and Boléro – were consciously ordered to correspond to the traditional movements of a symphony. Such grandiose sophistry is hardly necessary, but this conductor has always had a way of making simple things seem complicated.
Luckily, Barenboim allowed the music to speak for itself – he even stood mostly motionless, hands at his side, during the Boléro and let his virtuoso band develop this orchestrational tour de force. The CSO was also more or less on its own while Barenboim tended to the relatively modest yet omnipresent piano part of Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. I suppose anyone with many years of concertgoing might recall more stylish readings of these works (surely Ravel performances reached some kind of peak during Charles Munch’s reign over the Boston Symphony in the fifties), but I’m not inclined to complain. The Chicago Symphony has scarcely suffered under Barenboim’s leadership, and the sheer instrumental excellence of the playing was more than enough to start off Carnegie Hall’s new season on a high.
It was nearly five years ago that leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra in a concert performance of Richard Strauss’s Die Ägyptische Helena, the fifth and, according to conventional wisdom, the least of the composer’s six operatic collaborations with Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Nothing if not persistent, Botstein and the ASO were back in Avery Fisher Hall recently, performing the same work, with Deborah Voigt once again singing the title role. There are two possible explanations for this unexpected encore. One is that Botstein is genuinely convinced that Die Ägyptische Helena is the misunderstood masterpiece of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaboration, and he plans to perform it until the rest of the world comes around. Then, too, Telarc was eager to record the opera with Voigt, now perhaps the leading Strauss soprano of the day, and here was one practical way to go about it.
This Strauss fan has been brooding over Die Ägyptische Helena for years but is still unconvinced, even by Botstein’s passionate advocacy (in my revisionist opinion, Strauss and Hofmannsthal reached their peak in Act One of Arabella). There are gorgeous pages in this peculiar gloss on the postwar fate of Helen and Menelaus, but there are also long passages where the composer is clearly baffled by his librettist’s more esoteric flights of fancy, both in the original 1928 version (which Botstein prefers) and in the 1933 revision. For those who share the conductor’s enthusiasm, Telarc’s recording should make rewarding listening after the live-performance errors are patched up. Voigt is a vocally sumptuous although interpretively bland Helena, and Carl Tanner, if underpowered, brings more tonal allure to Menelaus’s impossible music than most tenors. Celena Shafer is a superb Aithra whose glittering soprano dances accurately and expressively over the notes, and Christopher Robertson makes appropriately brutal noises as the desert chieftain Altair.
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Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Daniel Barenboim at Carnegie Hall.
Die Ägyptische Helena
Opera by Richard Strauss, American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein at Avery Fisher Hall.