in: Reviews

November 17, 2014

Civic’s Virtues and Virtuoso

by

Jonathan Bass (file photo)

Jonathan Bass (file photo)

Not in the past many months had I heard another such a spectacular display of piano virtuosity as in Sunday’s Boston Civic Symphony concert under Max Hobart at Jordan Hall, where Jonathan Bass fearlessly and brilliantly tackled two really tough pieces with all the energy needed, and with all the sensitivity and warm expression as well. This being the sesquicentennial year of Richard Strauss, the Civic decided to honor him with the Burleske. This twenty-minute-long concerto in one movement owes something to the first movement of Brahms’s First Concerto (just as long, but much more integrated), and it sprawls in form, going on from several moments where one expects it to end. But though not notably tuneful, it is winningly witty, and admirably pianistic; most of all the Burleske is a genuine contest with the orchestra, while Brahms’s concerto is really more of a symphony. The bravura aspect really works well as a dialogue, and there is even a back-and-forth with the timpani from beginning to end (Rich Horn, timpanist, got two well-deserved bows).

The Totentanz is the least-often heard of Franz Liszt’s major works (there are several minor ones as well) for piano and orchestra, but I’ve always considered it the best. It’s written as a set of fantasies and loose variations on the Dies irae, and like the Strauss Burleske it is a little too long for maximum effectiveness. (If you remember network TV from about 1955, there was a crime show called The Telltale Clue that used the Totentanz as its theme music.) It reveals Liszt at his pianistically most unbuttoned, and the superposition of interlocked octaves and diminished-seventh appoggiature results in screamingly dissonant percussive harmony. The beginning is a fortissimo dead march with rattling skeletons, wild glissandi, and some adroit scoring (I especially liked the countermelody with bassoon in unison with the violas and cellos in Variation 1). Later (Variation 5), there’s a fugato at breakneck speed, and it would have been better, I think, to maintain a regular fast tempo in this section, sustaining the relentlessness rather than pushing it — this was my only complaint. Bass’s repeated notes were particularly exciting here. The slower variations of Part 2 of the Totentanz even include a prominent part for triangle – didn’t Liszt already work this to death in the E-flat Concerto? But the orchestral playing was excellent, and the piano playing was transcendental. (And here’s a question for the readership: Years ago a pianist friend of mine claimed there was a published piano solo version, by Liszt himself, of the Totentanz. I’ve never seen it, and because the whole question of Liszt editions is furiously complex, I wonder if anyone knows anything further about this.) Taichi Fukumura, assistant conductor, provided able direction. Bass played a lovely encore, which he announced was “quieter,” putting it mildly – Schubert’s Op. 90 No. 3 Impromptu in G-flat major.

The concert began with a piece I’d never heard before: Pinocchio–A Merry Overture, by Ernst Toch. One of the many who fled the Nazis and came to America, Toch is a largely forgotten figure today, notwithstanding that he composed expertly and abundantly, wrote an important book called Melodielehre, got a Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for his Third Symphony, and is known to most music students for his Geographical Fugue for four speaking voices (available in German and English versions). This Pinocchio, premiered in 1936, was a lighthearted sonata form, with some fine soft treble-register textures for violins. Nevertheless I thought the performance seemed a little too restrained, and I hope we can all hear it again.

After the intermission came Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, in the familiar revised version of 1851, with Max Hobart conducting relaxedly and confidently. This has always been the most popular of Schumann’s symphonies but it’s also formally and texturally the most problematic; it’s more heavily scored than his earlier symphonies, and everyone is playing nearly all the time. The first movement especially is a puzzler; it has a repeated Exposition but no Recapitulation, and from what I can tell it has two differently-modulating Development sections, where the most important thematic material appears for the first time. The cyclic motive that is first stated slowly in the Introduction becomes the main Lebhaft theme, and we hear it again in the Introduction to the finale; the main finale theme, on the other hand, had already been heard as a fanfare theme in the Development in the first movement. (Stravinsky wrote that the second movement, the Romanza, “is almost too faded even for dinner music in a Swiss hotel,” referring probably to the solo violin, but I think that passage is one of the nicest parts of the symphony.) All of this thematic mélange makes for an overall form that is hard to distinguish; I have never heard the original version, but I suspect that Schumann tried too hard during the revision process and succeeded only in over-formalizing. And the finale, one must dare to say it, is really rather dull for Schumann, and in fact the best theme in it is almost lifted from the slow movement of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. Still, the Fourth is not as colorless a symphony as the Third (“Rhenish”). And in back of all this we have to recognize that Schumann, never fully at home composing for orchestra, really did achieve a symphony of undoubted greatness in his Second, in C major, of 1847.

Taichin Fukumura and Max Hobart (file photo)

Taichin Fukumura and Max Hobart (file photo)

One final note: the Burleske, the Totentanz, and the Schumann Fourth all have D minor as their main key, and the Toch overture, though ending in G major, began in unabashed D minor. Years ago, when one of my colleagues was a member of the Boston local of the musicians’ union, many members would list “D minor” among their performing specialties. It was explained to me that “D minor” in this context meant “Jewish wedding music.” Then there’s Schoenberg’s Opus 7 Quartet and Verklärte Nacht, and Webern’s Passacaglia, and Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, and… and…

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.

2 Comments

  1. I have this recording of the Liszt Totentanz as piano solo with Markus Groh: http://amzn.com/B000QQTXQA I find it tremendously entertaining, but I love piano transcriptions of just about everything. Presumably he’s using this score, but I haven’t really looked at it closely: http://conquest.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/b/b5/IMSLP12790-Liszt_-_S525_Totentanz__siegel_.pdf

    Comment by Michael Monroe — November 17, 2014 at 6:33 pm

  2. …oh, and there’s this Valentina Lisitsa performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGBXA1tBiLw (I’m sure there must be others as well…)

    Comment by Michael Monroe — November 17, 2014 at 6:40 pm

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