in: Reviews

February 17, 2017

Is Maelzel the Boss?

by

Commemorating the 2009 premiere of Schuller’s “Where the World Ends” (BMInt montage)

Gunther Schuller, who died two years ago at age 89, made his home in Boston ever since 1967, when he arrived to direct the now 150-year-old New England Conservatory of Music. His relationship with the Boston Symphony, which includes commissions and over 100 performances, stretches from 1959. The renowned conductor, orchestra player, and writer, composed abundantly for orchestra in his long career; the BSO had performed his well-known Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee (1959) either complete or in part over 30 times before last night.

It is a natural idea to associate Klee’s paintings and drawings with music, knowing that Klee himself was trained as a musician and only at maturity gave up the violin for full-time effort as an artist; one could say that in Klee’s visual art, the graphic line is like melody: a unifying element of structure. Schuller’s seven pieces are mostly short and fragmented; the first, “Ancient Harmonies,” is less than two minutes, with chromatically complex wind chords, and the second, “Abstract Trio,” about as long, presents more winds in pointillistic groups of three, concluding with a cadential pizzicato for the strings. “Little Blue Devil” begins with an orchestral shriek, and then, according to the composer’s notes, “is transformed into a kind of jazz piece. A perky, angular theme…is combined with a blues progression.” The blues had a sighing 1940s sound, very appealing, with walking bass beat and trap set, rich low-tessitura harmony, and some wild solo flurries for the vibraphone.  “Twittering Machine,” another short piece, began with buzzing bees, a rapid texture of closely-packed seconds in strings and winds, which alternated thereafter with high- and ultra-high-register squeaks and bleats: string harmonics, three piccolos, and piano seemed to carry the day.  “Arab Village” the longest of the seven pieces, was marked by intense color and spatiality, including an offstage solo flute and Arab melodies in an extraordinary timbral mix — the warbling melodic unit appeared to be a dissonant unison of solo viola, harp, and three oboes, and something else I couldn’t see or identify. The background of this was a G minor ostinato pulse just like Tchaikovsky’s in The Nutcracker but richer. The flute solo faded in and out of this, with echoes of Griffes’s beloved Poem and Ravel’s Flûte enchantée, and widely-spaced divided strings in lush harmony.  “An Eerie Moment” was dominated by brief fortissimo gestures and a sostenuto background with a continuous roll on high timpano (I think).  The last piece, “Pastorale,” which in Klee’s original carried a subtitle, “Rhythms,” revealed repeated stepwise oscillations, back and forth and slurred, and fading away.  Andris Nelsons directed the whole ensemble with close precision and minimal gestures, and the orchestra’s concentration was complete.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K. 482, comes geographically between two more popular works in the same genre, No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 “Elvira Madigan,” and No. 23 in A Major, K. 488. K. 482 is like a reincarnation of an early but fully mature concerto, no. 9 in E-flat Major, K. 271 “Jeunehomme”, but with a larger orchestra (flute, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, strings, but lacking oboes); both works have slow movements in C minor, and both include a Minuet as a separate section in the middle of the finale. K. 482 is more relaxed, just as K. 271 is more brazen.  The slow movement of K. 482 is a variation form of rare beauty, like that of no. 18, K. 456.  (The finales of no. 17 in G Major, K. 453, and no. 24 in C Minor, K. 491, are also in variation form.)  A perceptible orchestral problem in this work has something to do with the woodwinds: if the passages for two bassoons in unison were played by only one, there would be an improvement.

Emanuel Ax was the expert piano soloist. He and conductor didn’t seem to quite match at first; it was a while before his running scale passages achieved the requisite metric clarity; but eventually all was well, as Ax allowed Mozart’s unsurpassed lyricism to emerge full strength. This was especially true in the lovely slow movement.  (Psychological programming nexus here: the subdominant coda of Mozart’s Andante [from m. 200 to the end] and the subdominant coda in the Marcia funebre of Beethoven’s Eroica [from m. 223 to the end], both in the same key, have an uncanny feeling.)  The finale had plenty of bounce and brightness, and Emanuel Ax’s love for the piece was everywhere evident; according to the program book, he has played it with the BSO “on numerous occasions” with six other conductors.

Most histories of music point to Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Sinfonia eroica, op. 55, as a milestone that marks a point-of-no-return for the evolution of musical art.  I think of it in slightly different terms — as a work of such amazing originality that no one could have foreseen its appearance on the horizon, no one could have heard it coming just on the basis of what was already known. There are other such works: Chopin’s B Minor Scherzo, op. 21; Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique; the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde (Wagner himself wrote at the end of a sketch: “So ward noch nie komponirt!”); Debussy’s Nuages; Stravinsky’s Petrushka. But Beethoven’s Eroica is what made the entire Romantic era, and indeed the whole modern musical world from 1815 to 1914, possible. Paul Henry Láng said it well 76 years ago: “Beethoven himself never again approached this feat of fiery imagination; he wrote other, perhaps greater works, but he never again took such a fling at the universe. Every component is unusual but singularly appropriate for his purpose, which is not the cult of one person but of an ideal, that of heroism itself.” Beethoven’s personally heroic act was also his triumphant affirmation of his destiny over his own despair. Judging from the joyful and witty lyricism of the Second Symphony of 1802, one could not imagine that Beethoven, crippled by advancing deafness, had considered suicide in that same year; just two years later, he launched mankind on its greatest musical adventure, leading the way with the Eroica.

The formal features of the Sinfonia eroica are so well known, and so often written about by dozens of major writers, that I hardly need say much about them here. (An excellent recent treatment can be found in Beethoven’s Symphonies: An Artistic Vision, by Lewis Lockwood, published 2015.) Above all, the four movements of the Eroica are an unflagging demonstration of forward motion in time, of assuring that the musical ideas follow correctly and in unbroken succession, whether in rapid tempo (the Scherzo), slow tempo (the Marcia funebre), moderate tempo (the first movement: Allegro con brio), or changing tempi (the Finale). It still startles audiences to realize that the first movement of the Eroica, nearly 700 measures, is almost as long in performance as an entire symphony of Haydn’s or Mozart’s, and its intensity never diminishes, even when it breathes for an instant, as at mm. 154-166 and 551-566. The Marcia funebre, with its triplet drumbeats and reverse-dotted rhythms, is almost as long as the first movement. The Scherzo bursts the bonds of the classical minuet and trio decisively and relentlessly. The Finale, which blends variations with the Sturm und Drang fantasia, is Beethoven’s single most radical adventure in variation form, his most brilliant confrontation with a theme that began as a Contredanse (WoO 14), broadened in his Prometheus ballet (op. 43), expanded further in his Variations for piano, op. 35, and culminated in the last movement of the Eroica.

This was the first Eroica I had heard live in some years. The orchestra played brilliantly in all respects. My disagreements are interpretive, and I’m not sure that everybody will follow my lead. First of all, the tempi. This performance, as in so many other recent instances, reveal to me that Beethoven’s own metronome markings, as published, are just wrong. Beethoven’s opening Allegro con brio asks for 60 to the measure. Andris Nelsons’s tempo last night was close to Toscanini’s, in fact slightly slower than 60; most listeners would be convinced that more coherence, and more audibility of detail, would be possible only with a slower tempo, something like Klemperer’s of about 120 to the quarter.  But an even more egregious example is the Allegro molto of the Finale, which Beethoven marks at 76 to the 2/4 measure ( = 152 to the quarter), which just doesn’t make sense. Nelsons came close to this, and it sounded really chaotic, indeed much faster than the Presto at the end of the movement, where the M.M. is 116 to the quarter.  When the main theme enters at m. 12, a slower tempo than 76 is surely called for; 60 to the measure is more like it. As for the dynamics, the faster tempo tends to push these as well, and many times I felt that the tutti were too loud.  E.g., in the Marcia funebre, the crescendo at mm. 96-98, marked f sempre più f should culminate in a solid ff, not fff. Not always, for sure! In the first movement, the crescendo from p to ff in just one measure (m. 185), just as Beethoven demands, was superbly exciting. Then there’s the middle of the Development section, a very famous passage, where Beethoven writes accents with sf 36 times in 32 bars, beginning at a ff level, climaxing with four very dissonant Neapolitan seventh chords which are, ironically, marked only f. Yet all of these contradictory markings don’t, to my mind, represent a challenge for greater force so much as greater restraint.

In this performance of the Eroica I was able to get the full impression of Andris Nelsons’s choreographic bent. He throws gestures all over the place, often conducting the accents rather than the measures, where these are at variance, and this can be very important; he turns right and left to face one or the other sections of strings (cellos and basses on the right), sometimes with small precise beat, other times with exaggerated swoops, and sometimes to great effect, not at all (e.g., mm. 527-531 in the first movement); often he rests his left hand on the railing behind him — again, so as to call attention to the conducting arm. Sometimes he bounces on his feet. Nelsons’s big gestures sometimes generate a bigger, louder response from the orchestra than is called for by the music. But I don’t expect everyone to agree with me about this. This expressive Eroica deeply moved even when it was too fast and too loud.

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.

11 Comments

  1. Tempo with Beethoven is always an vexing problem, especially since most musicians have been imprinted with a famous recording from decades past. I will be attending Saturday and will be interested to see Nelsons’s solutions. In my own experience, Beethoven’s own suggestions do work remarkably well, although care needs to be taken not to get too bogged down in the smallest details, or to let dynamics spin out of control. And if there’s one vice I wish Nelsons would take care of, it is his tendency to discourage finesse in that department. One thing to keep in mind is that Beethoven’s sound world did include a lot of improvisation on the fortepiano– and what is difficult for a modern orchestra may have sounded quite correct under his fingers.

    One comparison that would be fun to make for this week’s show is vs the BSO’s work with Manfred Honeck a few seasons ago, which was as fine as I have ever heard in this piece. One of the biggest selling points of those performances is that Honeck communicated the feeling of the tempo markings, even if he may have dialed them back a bit to account for the large orchestra/large hall. Part of his success in this regard may have come from excellent control of dynamics. The only exception on the tempo front was the otherwise superb second movement, which he inexplicably took noticeably slower than Beethoven had asked.

    The warning against that sin comes indirectly, through Erich Leinsdorf, of all people. Leinsdorf had been taken by a maiden aunt to attend Viennese military funerals countless times in his youth, just after WWI. When it came time for him to perform and record another famous work inspired by outdoor military funerals, he not only took the opening more or less at Beethoven’s tempo, but later used space in an essay to mock those who felt the need to milk the tragedy by playing slowly. I refer, of course, to Mahler 5, which has very much the figuration and harmonic rhythm of that outdoor military funeral march written a century earlier.

    Comment by Camilli — February 17, 2017 at 5:18 pm

  2. BMInt’s Honeck interview may be worth re-reading

    http://www.classical-scene.com/2014/02/20/honeck-remembers/

    Our related review is here:
    http://www.classical-scene.com/2014/02/21/un-honeyed-bso/

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 17, 2017 at 5:26 pm

  3. With respect to recent BSO performances, I would also submit that led by Francois-Xavier Roth (reviewed here: http://www.classical-scene.com/2016/01/08/goosec-at-bso/), which I preferred to Honeck. This week’s performance was far less appealing than either – meandering pulse in the opening movements, no antiphonal violins, railroad tracks before the 3rd movement trio, and sforzandi throughout that were arguably not very musical.

    Comment by Gerry — February 17, 2017 at 6:51 pm

  4. >> most musicians have been imprinted with a famous recording from decades past

    I doubt this is much true anymore. The tempo-attentive movement wrt LvB is almost a half-century old even to the savvy public, thanks first to the early-1960s Leibowitz recordings (Readers’ Digest; brisk but rather soulless, I felt) and then to the first Henle urtext editions and the widespread advocacy in lay print by Rosen, Steinberg, Brendel, Sherman, Zander, et alia. The lastnamed individual was attempting (without polished results, but still) HIP-speed Beethoven in the early 1970s, and was not alone; and the famous and pathbreaking Norrington set commenced a decade later, IIRC.

    And in any case to say ‘imprinted’ slights the independent-mindedness of all working musicians I know, as if Smithson Quartet members could never admit to love of the Busch.

    Comment by david moran — February 17, 2017 at 9:45 pm

  5. On David’s last point— yes. And no slight to reviewer meant. I should have said “music-lovers” rather than “musicians.” A much wider circle, and the point still holds for listeners of a certain age.

    Comment by Camilli — February 17, 2017 at 10:12 pm

  6. Interesting concert. I agree with many of the comments. Beethoven is still a work in progress, but got better as it went on. Movements 1 and 2 seemed unclear if they were going to be Beethoven’s tempi, or the slower, now-traditional ones. Even at written tempi, Nelsons seemed too tied up in individual beats and not looking at barlines and phrases. 3 and 4 had fewer places to tolerate messing around– except for a dramatic pause before th trio! Textures were often unrefined but there were still some excellent highlighting of individual voices.

    Comment by Camilli — February 19, 2017 at 5:04 am

  7. Saturday evening’s performance was exquisite and well received by the audience.

    Part of me still thinks: Symphony Hall-where people come to cough.

    Comment by William Devaney — February 19, 2017 at 11:03 am

  8. A fine review; thank you. I attended the Tuesday February 21 performance. I agree that Emanuel Ax’s love of the Mozart concerto was evident. Supporting this notion were the exceptional cadenzas, the pianist’s own, in movements I and III. What a pleasure to hear a musician with the technique, intellect, and passion to make this gem his own. I agree; the Andante was sublime.

    Comment by Michael Raizman — February 22, 2017 at 8:02 pm

  9. I attended the Thursday evening performance. That day many immigrants observed “a day without immigrants.” I wondered what it would have been like if the BSO had done the same that evening. A good percentage of the orchestra including the conductor would have been absent.

    Comment by JIm Doherty — February 23, 2017 at 9:40 am

  10. As I am writing, I saw the latest comments. I thought silly political comment should not find any place in music discussion.

    I get lost in the writer’s ranting on Nelsons’ choice of tempo. My time log recorded as such: 1st mov. 14:30, 2nd 15:40, 3rd 6:00, 4th 12:20. all approximate measurements. They are nothing special or extending the ranges compared with some of the most recognized recordings. After all, there is little to invent in this kind of performing art. Mostly people have been undone the greatness of the previous generations(not everyone, but only a couple of conductors). BTW, apparently Lee still fancies Honeck’s talk, whose concert I regarded as unworthy. Please use your connection and ask WCRB to put it on demand temporarily. I would listen to that performance again to see I was not wrong.

    Someone gave me a Friday afternoon ticket and I bought Tuesday ticket. (it sounds funny when you read ‘according to the composer’s notes, “is transformed into a kind of jazz piece.”‘ you don’t have to ask the composer, your ear can tell it is jazz. It should not be performed at the symphony. sorry. )

    The Tuesday Eroica was better than Friday. The horn made an important mistake in the first mov. on Friday. He trashed a dignified solo statement at his first opportunity. I would push for his early retirement, based on his other mistakes as well, if I were in charge.

    Our zeitgeist lacks true heroism. Even though Nelsons has not revealed much degenerated HIP tenancy, somewhat comforting to worthy audience, he comfortably gave up the some of the struggles in this great music. In the first mov., after the first theme was played, the chords was deliberately set at a dragged pace. I was very confused (angry needless to say too), since the overall time of the first mov. was not dragging. what did Nelsons wanted to say? A disoriented hero? Later, where was the urgency? where was the sincerity? where was fearlessness? Our time’s spiritual castration has removed most people’s heroism. Tuesday was better than Friday. Perhaps expectation played some magic.

    His unsuccessful performance of Brahms 4th should have warned me. Perhaps he had problems with the music themes composed of short motifs. His gestures (Fri) were much much more rigid than his smooth dances in Tchaikovsky 5 a couple of years ago. Surprisingly, I did not see he had trouble with Brahms 1st. I was disappointed that his broken arcs in the great B3 made his look like only average.

    Comment by Thorsten — February 23, 2017 at 4:54 pm

  11. Salini Impregilo celebrates Toscanini, an artist who distinguished himself in the music industry thanks to his talent and dedication.
    A book on his life has been recently published and will be available in bookshops around the world. https://www.salini-impregilo.com/en/press/toscanini/toscanini-the-maestro-a-life-in-pictures.html

    Comment by Paul — March 17, 2017 at 12:24 pm

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