CLASSCOL

These haven’t been very good weeks at the Philharmonic. Two of the orchestra’s former leaders have been around as guest conductors, presenting new evidence as to why not to mourn their absence from our midst. Zubin Mehta’s visit ended earlier this month with a wad of Beethoven, including the Violin Concerto with Pinchas Zukerman and the Eighth Symphony. Trustworthy friends reported with some horror on a most depressing evening, with a faceless meander through the concerto, a loveless approach to this most lovable symphony, and a performance level at which the orchestra seemed to unravel. I missed the event, listening instead to poised, meticulous, spirited playing by an orchestra of mere freelancers in a concert hall in Tokyo. I returned for Andre Previn’s concerts this week and last; his last concert in this brace falls this afternoon. and “fall” may, indeed, be the right word. Actually, I confess to having only heard half the program; no searching of souls, Previn’s or mine, has come up with a reason to devote an hour or so to music from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” which either belongs on a stage with mice and a Christmas tree, or in Disney’s “Fantasia” with dancing mushrooms. The half I did hear had Radu Lupu in a depressingly heavy-handed onslaught on Mozart’s great C-major Piano Concerto, with his own dull, unstylish cadenzas in the first and last movements, and with orchestral support from Previn and the orchestra that seemed rushed at times and underrehearsed at others. Before had come Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” Overture, which lay flat on the page. The previous week’s programs had, at least, included something of nominal interest. Try as I might, however, I cannot detect the slightest glow of light or heat in the music of Sir Michael Tippett. It is an affliction of long standing, embracing the four symphonies, the operas (give or take a small fortunate accident here and there in “The Midsummer Marriage”) and, most recently, the Triple Concerto that formed the centerpiece of last weekend’s Los Angeles Philharmonic program. The concerto runs about 35 minutes, and dates from 1979. The scoring is interesting enough, involving as it does some nice, rattly percussion; the writing for solo instruments is mettlesome, and it was bravely dispatched on this occasion by three Philharmonic stalwarts — the violinist Elizabeth Baker, the violist John Hayhurst and the cellist Barry Gold. The viola writing is particularly attractive; Tippet knows how to favor the instrument’s coppery sonorities, and Hayhurst’s playing had something you would have taken for eloquence in better music. But what goes on in this piece — or in anything else of Tippett’s you might name, for that matter? The work is a thing of shreds and patches: a gambit in one direction here, then a reversal; the start of a promising line of musical oratory, and then a shift that dashes hopes. The element of surprise can be a wonderful thing in music; it certainly works well in Mozart. With the Tippett brand of illusion and disillusion, however, you cannot think back and recognize the composer’s bag of tricks — as you can with Mozart. It’s a scattershot style, as if the composer simply threw in everything he could devise, in the hope that something might work. The harmonic style is fairly dense; the music moves, with no clear logic, among several tonal plateaus. But the end result, from all I can glean after hearing the work live under Andre Previn last week, and from the recording under Colin Davis on Philips, comes off as deaf-and-blind manipulation, paper music or, at best, cardboard. You will know how mindlessly, agonizingly dull this work turned out when I tell you that the Brahms Fourth Symphony, which followed it on the program, sounded positively giddy by comparison. Giddiness is not, actually, one of Brahms’ more noticeable traits, and the truth of the matter is that the quotient of ponderosity in this Fourth Symphony is actually a fair match for the Tippett. But there are attractions, as well, and the least you can say is that when Brahms’ music starts off toward some particular goal, it usually gets there. Previn conducted the work interestingly this time around, somewhat more rhythmically plastic than on his Telarc recording. The orchestra, at least on Thursday, played badly for him, with long stretches of poor balance and some fuzzy entrances. Perhaps it had been corrected by the Sunday concert, perhaps not. Driving home I soothed my assaulted ears with some of Angel-EMI’s new recording of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” under Roger Norrington, with his London Classical Players on their reconstructed Mozartian instruments, and with an astonishingly good cast. Perhaps the world didn’t need another “Magic Flute,” with a full column of fine-print listings in the Schwann Catalog that includes the deliriously beautiful 1938 recording under Sir Thomas Beecham with his mostly-Nazi cast and the powerful 1987 performance under Nikolaus Harnoncourt. But there is an infectious quality to this Norrington performance. It sounds young and spirited, full of invention. Liberties are taken, including some orchestral interjections at key moments that may not be Mozart’s intention but do no harm. The Pamina of Dawn Upshaw is sheer delight, and the scene between Tamino (Anthony Rolfe Johnson) and the Speaker of Olaf Baer– the crucial moment when the plot takes its magical pivotal turn — is marvelously underscored by Norrington’s firm conductorial hand. The Mozart celebration continues, with just cause.