10 January 2008

Exacting = exciting?

Steve Smith thinks so:

Maybe it was that very sense of novelty that made certain characteristics of last night's performance—which might have seemed like fussy obsessiveness in a Phil concert—come across as so sharply detailed, exacting and exciting at the Met. There's no denying that James Levine musters more genuine warmth and sensuality in Walküre, and Valery Gergiev, who conducted the opera's last performances here in 2004-05, wrung out more blood, sweat and passion. What Maazel provided was an extraordinarily lucid account that underscored every little detail of orchestral characterization. No matter how thick and heavy Wagner's music was, Maazel summoned a transparency that approached the quality of chamber music. You could argue that he sacrificed surging momentum, but Maazel offered a razor-sharp clarity audible from the opening bars, and subtly emphasized each passing leitmotif (those musical themes that Wagner used to identify characters and plot developments) for narrative cogency.
I, however, think that extreme enunciation can be, continuing the "ex" thing, exhausting. By evening's end, I was spent from having to shift back and forth between the drama on stage and the numerous "beautiful" packets of virtuosic sound emanating from the pit. Every orchestral phrase pregnant with nuance, carefully fabricated, were heavy beads that threatened to break the chain, the elusive "sweep". Contrast not with Levine but with Christian Thielemann, who can exact exactness as well as Maazel, but who's also keenly sensitive to the arch that holds it all together.