Under the masterful and restrained leadership of emeritus conductor Bernard Haitink, one of the finest senior conductors of our time, the Boston Symphony Orchestra delivered Haydn, Debussy, and Beethoven in a programmatically somewhat unusual cross-section, but at the highest level of orchestral expertise. On Thursday it was a real pleasure to watch Haitink’s expert control, often with his right hand holding the baton motionless while his left was effortlessly giving cues, registering, and even marking the beat, controlling the violin dynamics with a light wave of the hand.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 60 in C Major (Il distratto), formally unusual among his 106, is cobbled together in six movements from incidental music to a comedy by J. F. Regnard, Le distrait (“The distraught”), which was performed at Eszterház in German (Der Zerstreute). It was very popular in its day, but Haydn in his later years seems to have lost interest in it, referring to it in a letter as “that old pancake [Schmarrn].” The comedy stimulated some pretty good orchestral jokes. Jan Swafford’s very good notes mention the second-theme episode in the Allegro di molto first movement when “the music gets stuck on a chord and drifts off into silence, as if losing its train of thought [pp], then shakes itself awake [ff].” Another example comes in the Presto fourth movement, when a nine-bar passage in F minor (mm. 82-90) is followed by the identical passage in E-flat major (mm. 91-99) with the crudest possible parallel-octave motion between them; but the grossest instance is 18 bars into the Prestissimo finale, when all the violins retune their instruments, quickly adjusting the G strings from F back to G. The audience laughed at that interruption. Despite all these silly gestures, the work sparkles with typical Haydn wit and melodiousness. He includes military fanfares, French folk melodies and a Gregorian theme woven into different movements; their significance probably alludes to the forgotten comedy.
All six movements call for oboes, horns, and timpani, but five of them add trumpets in C, paired with the horns, which are in the rare key of C alto — the natural horn without crooks. This makes for a remarkably bright sound in the upper register, but includes high notes that are very difficult to play on the usual valve horn in F. I couldn’t see whether the horn players used special smaller instruments for this performance, but the sound was lovely.
Would Debussy’s complete Nocturnes closely follow the critical edition published in the Debussy Œuvres complètes? (True believers and dedicated fanatics are invited to see my precise review of this meticulously edited and documentarily ridiculously complex score in Music Library Association Notes, September 2001.) Debussy spent a year working out the careful orchestration of the Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune in 1894. The Nocturnes of 1899, much longer and more complex orchestrally, gave Debussy far more orchestrational trouble than did any other music of his, especially in the third piece, Sirènes, and even in his later years Debussy was not fully certain of what he wanted in this work. But in the Nocturnes he learned his lessons well, because his next major work, which was Pelléas et Mélisande, is an orchestral marvel and totally confident. From what I could discern, last night’s performance stuck very closely to the critical score. Some matters of balance and detail felt questionable. For instance, in Nuages, at mm. 23 and 27 the horns are specified to be open, not muted. But last night they were way too loud, indeed a solid f. The marking is p with decrescendo hairpin.
Some regard the third Nocturne, Sirènes, as less-than-ideal Debussy, indeed as a preliminary orchestral study for La mer. That may well be true, but last night’s fine performance gave no external signs of the difficulty Debussy faced in getting it right. Debussy’s achievement in deploying a wordless female choir as an instrument of pure orchestral sound was beautifully vindicated in this performance (Women of Tanglewood Festival chorus, excellently prepared by Lidiya Yankovskaya, who carefully chose the different vocalization syllables). There is, nevertheless, a definite problem in Sirènes, but it is in the form, not the sound. There is definitely an excess of four-bar phrasing and two-bar repetition, notwithstanding that these formal aspects are a fundamental aspect of Debussy’s style and technique. The subtle differences in phrase lengths in Nuages and Fêtes are apparent to any who seek them out, and are just right; the square and literal repetitions in Sirènes are just a little too much. What preoccupied Debussy in composing Sirènes were texture and sound, and even more than these, the harmony that drives them, and these are what we listen for most closely.
Beethoven’s beloved Seventh Symphony followed with great enthusiasm apparent from the orchestra. The first movement always kept a good dotted 6/8 that never slipped back into 2/4; the beautiful Allegretto had a perfect blend of lyricism and drama; the Scherzo was a true Presto and very staccato. The finale, Allegro con brio, was full of brio, but nevertheless I thought it was too fast. It even seemed faster than Beethoven’s indicated M.M. of 72 to the measure, but the guiding principle should be whether the sixteenths in the strings can be fully and properly articulated. A friend of mine, who has been reading War and Peace, remarked that this finale sounded like the clashing sabers at the Battle of Borodino, which, however, took place a few months after Beethoven completed the Seventh. Nevertheless, the bright, cheerful interpretation fully justified Wagner’s declaration that the Seventh was “the apotheosis of the dance.” The audience jumped to its feet in cheers, and no wonder.
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.
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