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Brahms According To Berio : Lewis Leads Orchestra In Esoterica

November 08, 1986|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

There was no superstar on the podium for the Los Angeles Philharmonic concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Thursday night. There was no big-name soloist on concerto display and no hum-along potboiler on the agenda.

There wasn't much of an audience either.

Too bad. Ever cautious when confronted with something that might remotely suggest novelty, the absentee subscribers denied themselves an emphatically conservative adventure.

Daniel Lewis--whose ideas about program making are as unorthodox and as refreshing, as his ideas about career building--used his second week as guest conductor to survey modern orchestral transcriptions of two masterpieces of Romantic chamber music. As a piquant overture, he ventured some jocular Stravinsky.

The news of the occasion no doubt was supposed to be Luciano Berio's setting of Brahms' F-minor Clarinet Sonata, Opus 120. Los Angeles, which had joined the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic in commissioning the piece, got the honor of the world premiere.

We also got something of a jumble. One can applaud any effort to broaden the limited symphonic repertory for clarinet. One can appreciate the aesthetic and intellectual problems, not to mention stylistic contradictions, inherent in any attempt to make the old new and the small large. In this instance, however, Berio does not seem to have triumphed over the obvious adversities.

He claims to revere Brahms. He says he has altered no harmonic structures and imposed no additions--apart from some patently expendable measures of orchestral throat-clearing at the beginnings of the first two movements. He insists he just wanted to project essentially intimate impulses on a grand scale.

Nevertheless, a lot has been lost in translation. Berio has stretched and bloated the simple piano part in a vain attempt to create orchestral thoughts where the innocent Brahms had none. The result is a lot of thick-textured noodling and doodling that hints vaguely at Brahmsian Weltschmerz and darkly at modern anachronism.

Although there are some lovely, transparent passages in the slow movement, the dense and distended accompaniment often blankets the clarinet. It is a serious problem, and it may have been exacerbated somewhat on Thursday by the soloist.

Stepping up from her accustomed first chair, Michele Zukovsky gave a performance that was cool and clear, yet surprisingly reticent. Ever supportive, Lewis did what he could with the orchestral mush.

Brahms according to Berio probably can be classified as an interesting failure. Better things can be said of Smetana according to George Szell.

The Hungarian conductor found a distinctly grateful vehicle in Smetana's great Quartet No. 1, "From My Life." Without resorting to the lush textures that the composer himself favored in his grandiose efforts, Szell expanded the original voices with striking dramatic force as well as careful expressive fidelity.

The reflective agonies and ecstasies of the mature Smetana may become a bit operatic in this heroic transcription. The folk elements certainly take on elements of flash. Still, Szell was able to amplify his source without seriously distorting it. The pathos remains intact.

The Philharmonic had played the work only once before, under Szell himself at Hollywood Bowl in 1943. Lewis and the orchestra met the challenge on this occasion with welcome flair, poise, subtlety and precision.

Similar qualities, enhanced with an aura of tongue-in-cheeky mockery, marked the performance of Stravinsky's "Jeu des Cartes." One may miss Cranko's choreography here, just as one missed Balanchine's when Lewis conducted the Bizet Symphony in C last week. But one never gets to hear music-making of such luxurious elan in the ballet pit.

Lose a little, gain a little.

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