Simon Rattle, the genial principal guest-conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, can do many things. He is bright, curious, sensitive, authoritative, vastly talented.
But he cannot do everything. Not yet, anyway.
Friday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he officiated at a potentially interesting shotgun marriage. It was intended to unite--and contrast--the heroic modernism of Olivier Messiaen with the mythic romanticism of Richard Wagner.
The idea was bold. Too bad it didn't work.
Messiaen's "Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum," which took up the first half of the program, is cool, iconoclastic, uncompromisingly tough. Written in 1964 as a memorial to the victims of World Wars I and II, it represents a grim yet illuminating essay in the complementary arts of compression and abstraction.
As such, it obviously appeals to Rattle's 20th-Century sensibilities. He knows exactly how far he can stretch the primitive expressive devices without courting undue bombast or vulgarity. He savors episodic tensions and brash contrasts, builds tidily with mighty dynamic blocks of brass, wind and percussion.
He understands the structural rules. He appreciates the mystical implications.
Most important, perhaps, he imparts his empathy to his players. The Philharmonic ensemble responded to his disciplined urgings on this occasion with admirable clarity and, where needed, with staggering force.
These same qualities would have been most welcome after intermission. Here, Rattle turned to the heart-rending finale of Wagner's "Die Walkure," with the shamelessly rip-snorting "Ride of the Valkyries" oddly appended--falsely durchkomponiert , if you will--as a prelude.
Rattle focused on detail. He toyed knowingly with the fragmented Leitmotifs. He brought some secondary instrumental voices into unaccustomed, telling focus. He made much of the introspective passages. He kept things moving.
Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. In the sprawling Germanic challenge, the young maestro (he just turned 35) was betrayed either by interpretive innocence or by simple inexperience.
He lost sight of the grand line. He thwarted the spaciousness, the imperative majesty of the music, not to mention the nobility of the rhetoric. He didn't dare pause for unabashed pathos, and he couldn't --or wouldn't--rise to the most massive climaxes.
Under the circumstances, the "Walkurenritt" emerged tame, even listless. Brunnhilde's desperate agonies resembled petty complaints. Wotan's ferocious wrath was reduced to bluster, his tragic resignation to cheap sentiment.
Compounding the problems, the orchestra sounded scraggly. Even more damaging, the soloists sounded miscast.
Anne Evans brought verbal intensity and radiant spinto-soprano tone to Brunnhilde's entreaties (the excerpt began with "War es so schmahlich . . . ?"). However, she lacks the exultant power, the steely thrust, the endless stamina and the firm lower register of a bona fide Wagnerian warrior. One worries about the Isolde for which the Music Center Opera has engaged her in 1994.
Hans Sotin's dark and gruff basso might be an asset to any "Ring" if he were assigned the villainous grunts of Hunding or Hagen. Wotan, however, requires a higher tessitura and a brighter range of vocal color, not to mention an aura of godly eloquence. Given these demands, Sotin had to resort to a lot of strenuous huffing and prosaic puffing, much of it short of the desired pitch.
The polite, non-capacity audience seemed baffled by the Messiaen, underwhelmed by the Wagner.