Modernism for an Egyptian Myth

Matthias Pintscher
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

Looking at the program that Christoph Eschenbach and the New York Philharmonic performed at Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday evening, you might think that the only link among the three works was between Berg’s Violin Concerto and Schoenberg’s arrangement of Brahms’s Opus 25 Piano Quartet. Berg, after all, was Schoenberg’s disciple, and his concerto combines Schoenberg’s 12-tone method with a current of Romanticism that ties it to the Brahms. In the Brahms itself, the music’s 19th-century harmonies are tempered by Schoenberg’s overtly modernist brass and percussion touches.

But as it turned out, the program’s 21st-century curtain-raiser, Matthias Pintscher’s “towards Osiris” (2005), though couched in a harmonic and rhythmic language far denser than Berg’s or Schoenberg’s, had at least tenuous connections to both works.

Mr. Pintscher’s score was inspired by the myth of Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of fertility, who is murdered and dismembered by his brother, Set, the god of war and chaos, and reassembled and revived by his sister-wife, Isis. Just as Schoenberg used his Brahms orchestration as an opportunity to experiment freely with contemporary sonorities that pull the music far beyond the implications of the original, Mr. Pintscher saw the possibility of using intense dissonance and a freewheeling, virtuosic approach to orchestration as a way to get to the emotional heart of the Osiris story.

This version of the work goes only part of the way: “towards Osiris” is a study for a larger piece, “Osiris” (2007). But it traces the arc of the story, starting with an impenetrably cacophonous introduction that captures Set’s anger and violence, and ending with a serene, rising string figure that suggests Osiris’s transformation by Isis.

Compressed as the story is, Mr. Pintscher covers considerable ground in his alluringly amorphous woodwind writing, dazzlingly tactile percussion scoring and passages in which orchestral colors morph constantly.

The Berg, if not as overtly programmatic as Mr. Pintscher’s score, has a subtext: Berg’s sorrow over the death of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and her second husband, the architect Walter Gropius. And just as the atonality of the Pintscher melts in its concluding bars, the Berg ends with a transfiguring set of variations on a Bach chorale.

Mr. Eschenbach and Pinchas Zukerman, the soloist, offered a surprisingly tepid reading of this emotional work. Mr. Zukerman produced a centered tone and gave the line some color — singing here, bitter there — but his phrasing was easygoing and distant. The orchestra sounded as if its thoughts were elsewhere too.

The Brahms-Schoenberg was an entirely different story. The work itself is full of surprises: the piano writing is so fully integrated into the orchestration that if you did not know the original, you would be hard pressed to imagine it. Mr. Eschenbach and the players reveled in its extremes, particularly in the marchlike section of the Andante con moto and the blustery brass and percussion scoring in the finale, in which the orchestra was at its vigorous best.