Non-Symphonic Programs Rescue the Symphonic Ideal

Some years ago, Leonard Bernstein wrote that composing a symphony might have become impossible since its traditional inspiration-the idea of nobility-had all but vanished from our lives. In fact, the dissolution of this cornerstone of Western music was foretold 100 years ago in the anguished elephantiasis of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, and, for some of us, the death knell came 30 years ago in Shostakovich’s 15th and final symphony, which ends with a tapping of the percussion that sounds like a medicinal drip. Music can’t help but be a reflection of the times, and if there has been no symphony of universal authority written since then ( pace the diverse efforts of Witold Lutoslawski, Hans Werner Henze, Henryk Górecki, John Corigliano, Philip Glass and others), it may be because our times, as Lewis Carroll might have said, have only gotten ignobler and ignobler.

Many commentators have pointed out that the survival of the symphony is dependent on the vitality of the institution that has nurtured it, the symphony concert. This brings up another concern: How is that institution to survive if all that it offers are overplayed exercises in nostalgia? In other words, can a symphony concert succeed without a symphony? A pair of extraordinary concerts at Avery Fisher Hall by a visiting orchestra from Bamberg, Germany, argued persuasively that it could.

Since 2000, the chief conductor of the Bamberger Symphoniker has been a young Englishman, Jonathan Nott. His résumé is a model of what I would be looking for if I were heading a search committee to fill the vacancy of music director at one of the great American orchestras. (At the moment, the most gaping vacancy is at the Chicago Symphony, which was just in town with its outgoing music director, Daniel Barenboim, whose love of the grandiose stands in direct opposition to the spirit of Mr. Nott.) Intensive work with contemporary music on the highest level-Mr. Nott is currently the principal conductor of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, founded by Pierre Boulez-features as prominently on his C.V. as broad experience in the opera pit. (He has also been Kapellmeister at the Frankfurt Opera and the Hessian National Theater Wiesbaden, where he conducted everything from Mozart to Verdi, Puccini and Wagner’s Ring cycle.)

Often, when I’m confronted with an apparently motley program, I ask myself: “What on earth would these composers have to say to one another if they actually met?” Mr. Nott put together three masters who embody a critical turning point in the development of Western music-Beethoven, who spanned the Classical and Romantic ages; Mahler, who bridged the late Romantic and the modern; and the Hungarian postwar figure György Ligeti, who has probably been more successful than any other living composer in combining disparate musical schools and traditions into a distinctive, bewitching blend. Performed with great zest by a youthful-looking band and the French piano soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, these odd bedfellows were revealed as kindred spirits.

Mr. Ligeti delivered the opening statements: first with Lontano (1967), which gives the impression of a benign alien phenomenon approaching Earth from afar; and, in the second program, with Atmosphères (1961), simultaneously protean and static, which provided soundtrack amplification for the cosmic joke of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Coming after the delicately depersonalized Lontano, Mahler’s Todtenfeier (“Funeral Rite”), a symphonic poem of 1888 that, in more overblown form, later became the first movement of his Resurrection Symphony, lost much of its usual horror-story luridness. What it gained was an incisive transparency that pointed to the composer’s famous explanation of the piece as a question to an imaginary protagonist: “Why have you lived? Why have you suffered? Is all this merely a great, horrible jest?”

Coming after Atmosphères, the first movement of Mahler’s unfinished 10th Symphony seemed less the usual decadent last gasp of Romanticism than a pioneering step into the tonally untethered future. This, for once, was not the insistently rhetorical Mahler that I resist (the brilliant talker on the adjacent barstool fueled by one too many), but the Mahler who may fairly be said to have been the last of the 20th century’s musical idealists-the last Don Quixote. And how welcome it was to experience Mahler in relatively concentrated form!

In this context, Beethoven’s fourth and fifth piano concertos seemed unusually fresh and dispassionate. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, like Mr. Nott, is a stalwart of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and as suspicious of false sentiment as he is of imposed gravitas. This was Beethoven with an unfurrowed brow-non-argumentative and absolutely focused on the workings of his musical imagination. No one today plays the piano with more spirited precision than Mr. Aimard. The triumph of touch in his approach summoned the memory of his greatest predecessor in the French piano school, Walter Gieseking, whose Apollonian playing of Mozart, Beethoven and Debussy epitomized the Baudelarian virtues of ” luxe, calme et volupté,” without a hint of decadence.

In another departure from the usual symphony-concert format, these programs also featured Mr. Aimard in two sets of Mr. Ligeti’s highly virtuosic piano études. In the album notes of Mr. Aimard’s recording of the composer’s piano works on the Sony label, Mr. Ligeti writes of the intricate human process by which the études came into being:

“I lay my ten fingers on the keyboard and imagine music. My fingers copy this mental image as I press the keys, but this copy is very inexact: a feedback emerges between ideas and tactile/motor execution. This feedback loop repeats itself many times, enriched by provisional sketches: a mill wheel turns between my inner ear, my fingers and the marks on the paper. The result sounds completely different from my initial conceptions: the anatomical reality of my hands and the configuration of the piano keyboard have transformed my imaginary constructs. In addition, all the details of the resulting music must fit together coherently; the gears must mesh. The criteria are only partly determined in my imagination; to some extent they also lie in the nature of the piano-I have to feel them out with my hands …. A well-formed piano work produces physical pleasure.”

As I listened to Mr. Aimard’s seemingly effortless playing of these fiendishly enchanting pieces, it occurred to me that what really brought Beethoven, Mahler and Mr. Ligeti together in these non-symphonic “symphonic” programs was their love of musical sensuousness-a delight in the revelry of sound.