The Saturday Review
17 August, 1957
Schuricht and Egk at Tanglewood
by Irving Kolodin
Thanks to Dr. Gaël Rouillé
"To start a tour of American festivals with a visit to Tanglewood is, unquestionably,
to put first things first. Perhaps it is the wish of the ever-modest management of
the Boston Symphony Orchestra to pass without celebration the twentieth season of
musicmaking in this choice locale, but that need not be binding on one
who was present when the late Serge Koussevitzky subjected Eliel Saarinen's shed
to its first pragmatic test. It was not by music, but with two blocks of wood which he
picked up from the still unfinished floor.
What he heard when he clicked them together
brought a satisfied nod. It was the first of perhaps millions of satisfied nods that
patrons have since exchanged with friends (not neighbors, for all neighbors are friends
within these hospitable gates) . For one whose Tanglewood-going of recent years
has been infrequent, it was soul-satisfying to spend an hour before the concert
touring the grounds and noting how the human intrusion on the peaceful landscape
has sunk roots and become a part of nature's own picture. Changes there have been,
of course, but almost all of them have been improvements - easier access,
better parking facilities, longer vistas.
Nobody ever had to be told
the Stockbridge-Lenox-Lee area was beautiful, even when a sudden down-pour
meant ankle-deep mud in the parking lots pre-World War II.
How beautiful it is can only be reckoned by the standards of its counterparts in Europe
- fabled Salzburg, antique Amsterdam, edifying Edinburgh. Not one of them can provide
the surpassing quiet of Tanglewood's green acres, acoustics to equal the ones
built into the wedge-shaped shed (the funnel-effect makes the unamplified oboe
audible a quarter of a mile away), or patrons with comparable decorum.
Glyndebourne has its charms, of course, but what would John Christie think of listeners
seated in his gardens in shorts and pull-over sweaters ? Of a recent evening
it also had Carl Schuricht, the venerable conductor whose Polish stock has been soaked
in so many national juices as to make him at seventy-seven that distinguished thing,
a citizen of Europe. Celebrating his seventy-sixth birth-day at his Swiss home
in July 1956, Schuricht could have had little notion that his next birthday would find him
what he had not been for all his previous musical life-a celebrity in America.
Certain natural causes, including the death of numerous colleagues (mostly his junior),
provided the unexpected opportunity to share the direction of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
on its memorable tour of the United States last winter.
A round fifty-five years of professional experience equipped Schuricht with the skills
not only to make a success of that venture, but also to earn the invitations
he has been filling this summer (at Chicago's Ravinia, prior to Tanglewood).
As an admirer of Schuricht's attractive performances with the Vienna visitors,
I made the trip to Tanglewood with the expectation of hearing
the kind of good old-fashioned music-making only a good old-fashioned conductor can produce.
I heard some, but not as much as I had hoped for.
A member of the orchestra with whom I exchange a few casual words answered,
to a query as to his impressions of the visitor:
"I don't know-we haven't played a concert with him yet."
These were wise words, from a professional lexicon as pragmatic
as Koussevitzky's clicking together of two pieces of wood.
Namely, a performance is the product of the interaction of men and music-
and who can tell, before it happens, how they will interact?
An oddly balanced program, beginning and ending with Brahms
(the "Tragic" Overture and the First Symphony) had the contemporary Bavarian
Werner Egk's "Three Peasant Pieces" as a somewhat gritty filling).
As first announced, the Egk work was his "Orchestersonate" of 1948:
the substitution of the earlier (1934) music provided a view of what he was
before he became what he is.
We don't have a sufficiently clear picture of Egk's accomplishment to say what he is,
but it is certainly better than what he was.
Despite some allusions to the "Georgica Carmina" of Virgil
(recalling that his countryman Orff has had more than a little success
with the "Carmina" motif), Egk's work amounts to no more than a suite
based on Bavarian folk tunes treated in parodistic style.
It was played by the New York Phtharmonic-Symphony Orchestra
under the direction of Otto Klemperer as long ago as November 1934.
It may have sounded spicy in those days, but the off-key dissonances
and rhythmic distortions are rather rudimentary techniques of musical caricature at this time.
Schuricht's comprehension of its broadly humorous plan was unquestionable,
but it did not contribute much to the distinction of his program.
His direction of the two works of Brahms struck me as only partially successful.
It is a maxim of the prize ring that "Styles make fights."
The gist of this is that two skillful performers whose methods are at variance
will never come to close quarters and a decisive outcome.
Something of the sort seemed to separate the orchestra,
long accustomed to conductors of the French school (Koussevitzky, Munch, Monteux, etc.),
and Schuricht, whose concepts are certainly Germanic.
This is not to say that good will did not exist on both sides,
or that the audience did not hear a suitable amount of fine orchestral performance.
It did: but it did not (in this opinion) hear either the Boston Symphony
or the Schuricht kind of Brahms.
The former is spry, lightfooted luminous: the latter is weighty, slightly ponderous,
and dark. In the "Tragic" Overture, the problem-in terms of time expanse-
is relatively manageable, and it came off well.
Schuricht's way of drawing a ground plan is comprehensive.
He knows, infallibly, the points and joints on which the success of an interpretation depends,
and how to prepare them. The longer expanse of the symphony, however,
introduced other complications.
At times one had the feeling Schuricht's conception of the Brahms No. 1,
played by the Vienna Philharmonic, might have been superbly expressive.
Played by the Boston Symphony, it was solid but somewhat lumpy, unquestionably sincere
but slightly tedious. What might have been eloquence
in a sympathetic response of an indoctrinated orchestra became sentimental
in the tentative response of one which was trying very hard but wasn't quite at one
with the man in charge. The effort on both sides was beyond complaint:
not, however, the results."
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