Program music. Orchestral showpieces.
These categories, both liable to elicit frowns, lie in wait for anyone tempted to generalize about the three interconnected works on this week's Minnesota Orchestra program, led by Osmo Vänskä with characteristic sizzle. It's true that all the pieces in question -- Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration," Liszt's "Mephisto" Waltz No. 1 and Berlioz's "Fantastique" Symphony -- tell stories, and that all exploit 19th-century improvements in orchestral technology and technique. Yet it's un-illuminating to lump them together. Each has distinct musical virtues -- and warts.
A memento of an early infatuation with Wagner's "Tristan," "Death and Transfiguration" (1889) was once Richard Strauss' most popular tone poem. To me it sounds irredeemably mundane. Though there's no disputing Strauss' orchestral mastery -- it was he, after all, who updated Berlioz's 1843 "Treatise on Instrumentation" -- this music, especially the climactic, C-major apotheosis, doesn't achieve the exaltation to which it so noisily aspires. Vänskä's account offers plenty of technicolor razzle-dazzle but can't disguise the essential poverty of Strauss' conception -- a step backward from his earlier "Don Juan."
Part cleric, part rogue, Franz Liszt -- the central figure in any history of virtuosity -- was in a class of his own. Among his tone poems, which Strauss took as models, the voluptuous "Mephisto" Waltz No. 1 (1861) is one of the most effective. Liszt's handling of the orchestra may be crude by Strauss' standards, but he dances around the dual sinkholes of bombast and sentimentality with devilish skill.
Vänskä and the orchestra dispatch the piece with Lisztian panache. Here and in the Strauss, guest concertmaster Zachary DePue, visiting from Indianapolis, plays his too-brief solos with fluid beauty -- a reminder that this orchestra has been without the services of a permanent concertmaster for 17 months.
With his shock of red hair and his transports of infatuation and rage, the aptly christened Hector Berlioz -- author of the most entertaining musical memoir I know -- was romanticism incarnate. His "Fantastique" Symphony, written in 1830 (a year of revolution and insurrection in France), is a still-startling mix of immoderation and formal rigor. Liszt was at the premiere; he loved it.
Thursday's performance, despite a restless audience, was superlative. The second-movement waltz had an irresistible swing; the heavy brass, withheld until the fourth movement, snarled with exceptional menace. But it's the breathtaking "Scene in the Country" -- no one evokes lonely passion like Berlioz -- that will rob me of sleep for the next few days.
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.