in: Reviews

March 11, 2010

Electric Britten, Moving Bruckner from Zander and the NEC Philharmonia

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This Wednesday evening, March 10, guest conductor Benjamin Zander assembled the NEC Philharmonia on the stage of Jordan Hall. Both gave their considerable best in two intriguing scores, affording Boston listeners a rare chance to directly compare today’s two dominant orchestral lay-outs, and to publicly redress an all-but-forgotten cultural-political disharmony from seven decades ago.

<p>Cellist Sebastian Baverstam; Japanese Counsel General, Masaru-Tsujiww; and Benjamin Zander   (NEC Photo)</p>

Cellist Sebastian Baverstam; Japanese Counsul General, Masaru Tsujiww; and Benjamin Zander (NEC Photo)

English composer Benjamin Britten lived in New York from 1939 to 1942. He returned home as a conscientious objector, a rough row to hoe at that time. His life-long pacifism found small acceptance in the embattled wartime UK. Isolated England feared military engulfment and civil destruction. The terrible devastation of Europe’s “war to end all wars” was a mere 22 years in the past. In Brooklyn Heights, in 1940, through the mediation of his government, the 26-year-old Britten accepted a commission from Japan to write a festive work to mark the 2600th anniversary of the Japanese Empire. Japan was itself engaged in the middle years of its extensive war in China. Britten, young and undeflectably principled, submitted a compact, emotionally charged Sinfonia da Requiem, whose three movements bore solemn titles from the Requiem Mass. On the score’s arrival in Japan, that nation’s then hyper-acute sensibilities found the overtly Christian section labels insulting. It was felt that such a work could in no way celebrate the Emperor, the incarnate symbol of national unity and the clerical head of his island empire’s Shinto religion. The foreign ministry in Tokyo fired off to the foreign office in London a stern official protest, rejecting the score. John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic premiered the work, Britten’s Op. 20, on 29 March 1941. Japan, England, and the US were still at peace. In 1956 the Sinfonia da Requiem was at last heard in Japan, with the composer conducting the NHK Symphony, and it has been performed there numerous times since.

On entering the hall, Benjamin Zander announced from the stage that he, the NEC Philharmonia, and the government of Japan would undertake a final healing of this seven-decade cultural and political rift between two nations that have long been firm and cordial allies. As the applause following the intensely charged performance rolled on, Mr. Zander collected a copy of the Britten score from the podium and invited Masaru Tsuji, the Japanese Consul General in Boston, to step forward. Mr. Tsuji accepted the score on behalf of his nation, then spoke briefly of the appropriateness of this musical occasion to further his people’s desire to knit strong ties among friends. (For the text of Mr. Zander’s letter of invitation to Mr. Tsuji, please see the BMInt Staff article, “Japan to Accept Britten Score, 70 Years after its Commission. “)

In modern string configuration — left-to-right: violins 1, violins 2, violas, violincellos, contrabass — the orchestra stormed into the first section, Lacrymosa (Andante ben misurato). They established a high-energy climate in which insistent, short rhythmic motifs have much of the say, handed from string groups to brass to winds, commented upon noisily by the sizable percussion battery and its allied piano part. Melodic development is not the point; the tight metrical motifs, rising and tumbling in both pitch and power, soon threw out swelling laments and the direct emotional punches of orchestrated wails. As the evocations of pain swelled, the acid brass commentary strove for attention. Brief, relenting bars ceded, attacca, to the central death’s dance, Britten’s yet more intent Dies iræ (Allegro con fuoco). Every member of the band played with utter conviction and, when urged by the conductor to deliver their all, ferocity. This was electric musicianship, a statement of such seriousness of approach and commitment that the third section, Requiem æternam (Andante molto tranquillo) retained the impetus and intensity of the preceding quarter of an hour of voltage. Even as plangent decibels gave way to an ashen, drained stasis, recurrences of the despairing howls jostled, unsettled, against a disparate new seeking after renewal and comfort. Then, listeners and players still internally thrumming with the effect of all this, it just ended.

Now and again, this publication has been a platform for somewhat divergent commentaries, as side remarks or in lengthier writings, on what is pleasurably audible in halls, what comes through clearly, and what factors may account for acoustic difficulties. The second half of this concert put Jordan Hall, as a symphonic venue, to test by permitting young conservatory musicians and the experienced audience to take in and evaluate the great changes wrought by moving the string divisions and some other instrumental groups around. A standard US orchestral layout for the Britten favored massed, fairly centered sound at almost all dynamic levels, while the late Romantic Germanic set-up adopted for the vast Bruckner Symphony No. 5 in Bb (original version, 1875-76; ed. 1939 by Robert Haas; with a later tuba part) milked the antiphonal nature of the divisi violins, contrasted violins 1 to the immediately adjacent celli and basses, and placed the violas where they spoke as much up as out, to fine effect. From their house right placement on the stage, the violins 2 section projected a veiled, dusky timbral sheen in any but ff and greater passages, delivering attention-getting power in section solo lines. Where the Britten had presented a concentrated, unified wall of sound, especially in fuller passages, the Bruckner called effectively upon the revelatory geography of its component instrumental sections to give listeners a transparent, sonically comprehensible overview of all the strands, nearly all the time. The high, hard-surfaced stage house and its hall served both of these sonic æsthetics effectively, communicating their differences while always supporting ensemble sound.

The effect of the orchestra’s exceptionally spaciously and majestically bowed Adagio opening of the first movement, Introduction (Adagio – Allegro), was curiously negated when Mr. Zander’s uneasily quick and rhythmically uncommitted Allegro toppled what had begun as an almost religious firmament of possibilities. The tempi were unrelated, a curious gesture with which to get a massive form like the Fifth underway. I should add, just to house all quibbles in one paragraph, that the bumptious, one could say raucous nature of the bold outer Scherzo wrapping insisted on frequent, brutal distensions of the sweet, Ländler-like Trio, often with such powerful distortion of forward motion and the usual relief brought by a Trio, that the movement became disjointed. The Zander approach to this was, to my ear, just that much too manic. The hyper-dramatic transitions side-swiped the ripe, difficult rhetoric of the movement. I should note, though, that I have never succeeded in coming to terms with the organization of this one movement among all the symphonies, which no doubt reveals a large gap in my understanding of what Bruckner, that marvelously odd genius, was about. Even the beautifully written characterizations of the composer’s aims by modern Brucknerians fail to convince me of this movement’s effectiveness in the hands of most conductors.

This was still an evening to remember with pleasure, and certainly with admiration for what Benjamin Zander and his brilliant, deeply committed NEC band brought off in handing listeners so eminently worthwhile an experience. Both on the part of the conductor, a Grammy nominee for his recent release of this same work, and on the part of sections and some decidedly contract-worthy wind soli, this was deeply enjoyable, moving Bruckner playing. Among the excellent winds, Pamela Daniels, first flute, and  first oboist Amanda Hardy stood out. They held aloft their extended, exposed, and pace-critical parts, especially in the second movement, Adagio (Sehr langsam). Amanda Hardy earned a warm reception for her faultless double-reed presence in and among the other complex lines of this movement and in the difficult Scherzo. It is uncommon to hear oboe tone this poised, so wonderfully fat (praise!), and sweet in North American orchestras, as we’ve almost entirely gone over to a hard, thin, edgy oboe sound that, yes, cuts, but simply cannot blend, even with the clarinets.

With the blessing (yon lovely Irish phrase), December 7 will eventually be just another twelfth-month day. Reaching out, publicly and personally, as Benjamin Zander did in extending an inviting hand to a cultured individual who happens to be his government’s voice in Boston, is one of the ways this will happen.

Editor’s note: Bill Carragan, whose comments follow, undertook what some feel is the most successful completion of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony, which has been performed and recorded a number of times. His Bruckner scholarship is thorough, constantly aware of the not always linear historical evolutions in the field, and typified by a score-based concern for the composer’s original and, inevitably, reconsidered intentions. These remarks have been added to this review at the request of the author.

“The version Ben used is that of 1878. An earlier 1876 version can only be teased out of the sources here and there, notably for the last 150 or so measures, but not for the symphony as a whole. That is because there is only one composition score, and the many over-writings in it cannot be correlated without much conjecture. Go to <www.abruckner.com> and read the essay I wrote on the Fifth to help Ben prepare for his Philharmonia recording.

The flute and oboe were lovely, and the strings, in the only legitimate seating for an orchestra, were the soul of transparency. When I was a child, all orchestras were seated with the second violins on the right. Putting the cellos on the right is cowardly, a concession to string-quartet seating, where the violins work together quite differently from what they do in the orchestra. There is no justification except fear of failure for always placing the cellos on the right. Audiophiles, especially, should resist a scheme where all the treble sound comes from the left channel and all the bass from the right.

You and I agreed on the positive aspects, not so much on the negative ones. The performance itself stemmed from a very deep understanding by Ben of the layered tempos, more complex and demanding than in any other Bruckner symphony. Nonetheless, the performance was most spontaneous and full of surprising excitement and vigor, animated perhaps by a certain sense of destiny coming from the gracious presence of the Japanese Consul General and the very heartwarming act of reconciliation by all concerned. With respect to your criticisms, the trio was actually very steady, and the violent tempo changes in the scherzo, which are present in full detail in the source, were carried out with much more integrity and success than is usually encountered. As for the beginning of the allegro, he let it grow directly from the preceding adagio, then moved it up to the regular tempo by the time of the loud statement. This was done so smoothly that I could not have any complaint.”

Veteran recording engineer Christopher Greenleaf collaborates with chamber, early, and keyboard musicians in natural acoustic venues on both sides of the Atlantic. He is active as a writer, translator, photographer, and acoustic consultant.

1 Comment

  1. This was for us, in anticipation, the “do not miss” concert of the season. The great BB symphony and my favorite of the Bruckner works,a rarely performed masterwork. With a chance to hear these played we would have been delighted with ordinary performances, but this was superb, with amazing playing by the student orchestra:oboe,wws,brass,strings and percussion.
    And blessings to Maestro Zander-so happy his father led him to the mighty fifth.

    Judy and Morty S

    Comment by morty schnee — March 14, 2010 at 10:46 am

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