in: Reviews

December 4, 2008

Three Standing Ovations: Boston Symphony Orchestra Provides an Outstanding Event


This concert was one of the outstanding events of the entire Boston Symphony season. Indeed, few occasions in Boston within the past decade were so memorable—a world premiere by one of America’s best composers, and fine performances by two of the best conductor-pianists.

Why should two well-known conductors, Daniel Barenboim and James Levine, begin a symphonic concert by playing a piano duet, without even using the orchestra? It’s plain: these two musicians are also old friends, and they enjoy the companionship of making music directly and together, sharing the duet with a large audience but especially among themselves. In this case, they were also enjoying one of the great monuments in a distinguished but often overlooked repertory. (A hundred years ago, before radio and the phonograph, duet arrangements were how people learned new orchestral music. To all pianists: look in your great-grandmother’s attic or piano bench, and you’ll find them; don’t fail to play them, because your sight-reading skills will increase by leaps and bounds, and you’ll discover much wonderful music.)

Schubert wrote as much music for piano four hands as he did for solo piano—much more, indeed, than any other major composer. His earliest known work, D 1, is a Fantasy in G for piano four hands, written when he was 13. The Fantasy in F minor for piano four hands, D 940, is one of the crowning achievements of his last year, 1828. (What is a Fantasy, anyway? In Schubert’s case there are several examples, typically in a single movement of several contiguous sections corresponding roughly to the four movements of a sonata but individually shorter, and the last section similar to the first. Schubert’s other mature examples are the Fantasy in C major, D 760, from 1822, whose second section is a variation set on Schubert’s own song “Der Wanderer”; this best-known of his fantasies is a major milestone in the history of thematic transformation. Less often heard is the big Fantasy for violin and piano, D 934, from 1828, with a variation section on Schubert’s song “Sei mir gegrüsst.” Both of these works are unusual in Schubert’s output in that they are conceived in virtuoso style.)

The F minor Fantasy is large in scale like the others, but, like nearly all of Schubert’s duet music, doesn’t require a virtuoso technique. The four-section plan includes a return to the first in the final section, which is developed into a double fugue; one model for this might have been Mozart’s F minor Fantasy for mechanical organ, K 608, which includes a fine double fugue. There are other echoes of Mozart as well; I think that Schubert was thinking of Barberina’s cavatina “L’ho perduta, me meschina!” in Mozart’s Figaro when he wrote the opening melody; they are harmonically similar and in the same key. (There’s no doubt that Schubert knew his Mozart; they were fellow Viennese, after all. One of Schubert’s very earliest works, the Fantasy for solo piano, D 2E, from 1811, quotes liberally from Mozart’s famous Fantasy for piano, K 475.) There’s a radical key scheme: while the first and last sections are in F minor, providing the necessary tonal closure, the second and third sections in between are in F-sharp minor, which is pretty remote; but the same drastic relationship is found in the first section of Mozart’s K 608 Fantasy mentioned above (compare also Haydn’s last piano sonata, in E-flat major, with a slow movement in E major).

The performance with Barenboim primo and Levine secondo was delightful, especially in the scherzo section, which in terms of sheer energy and richness of invention is probably the best part of the entire Fantasy. I was particularly impressed by the control of pianissimo, which was delicate but absolutely clear.

The first half of the program concluded with Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, op. 37, in which Barenboim emphasized both the lyric and the dramatic to perfection. C minor, after all, means drama for Beethoven — compare the “Pathétique” Sonata op. 13, the slow movement of the “Eroica” Symphony, op. 55, the Fifth Symphony, op. 67 and the Choral Fantasy, op. 80, and, at the early and late poles of his career, the String Quartet, op. 18 no. 4, and the last Piano Sonata, op. 111. The Third Concerto comes right at the beginning of the great middle-period adventure; it was premiered in 1803 and dedicated to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, himself a competent composer (he was killed in battle three years later).

I could write at length about this great work and its excellent performance but will mention only a few details. Barenboim lingered over the first-movement cadenza, making very free with the tempo of its opening bars in a grand romantic manner; later in the cadenza he emphasized Beethoven’s exaggerated number of trills, which made the re-entrance of the orchestra, pianissimo with ghostly timpani strokes, all the more striking. The second movement is a true Beethoven Largo, an expressive slow romance like those of his Piano Concertos 1, 2, and 5 and the Violin Concerto, or for that matter like the slow movements of several of Hummel’s concertos, and both of Chopin’s, with plenty of highly decorated melody, and in Beethoven’s case, 128th-notes in abundance (they are seldom seen in any music after Beethoven). This bel canto piece in E major, with muted strings, represents the calm between two C minor storms; Beethoven didn’t ask for an attacca to the finale but he could easily have done so, the G sharp of the E major tonic chord connecting to the A flat appoggiatura of the rondo. Overall one could especially appreciate Barenboim’s relaxed sound, imagining the piano as it was in Beethoven’s own time without any romantic grandiosity or excess of fortissimo; the notes do all the work of the drama, and this threshold concerto after all, has some of its psychological roots in Mozart’s K. 491 concerto in the same key.

Elliott Carter will have his 100th birthday on December 11, but he has been one of America’s most renowned composers for about 70 years. Everyone who has kept up with the current Boston celebration is gratefully aware of how active Carter has remained as a composer far beyond the years of any other major master. It was thrilling to see him in person in Symphony Hall. Even with a cane, any of us should walk so well at 75, to say nothing of 99.

I imagine the title of Carter’s new work, Interventions, as rather suggesting inter-inventions, in that the solo piano and the orchestra are several times well set off from each other—inventions between, solo intervening, not to say interjecting or even interfering, in the orchestra and vice versa. One might guess, even, that Stravinsky’s Movements for piano and orchestra (1959) served as a model, with clearly defined successive but contiguous episodes. Interventions begins with a joke. There is a loud crescendo, Wozzeck-style, on a unison A for strings and winds, the same A that remains in the ear from the orchestra’s tuning-up only a minute or two earlier. Immediately this A is answered with a B flat on the solo horn a semitone above the A, reminding the listener of how a wind ensemble tunes up. At the very end of the piece, this same semitone, touched off with a slapstick, is amplified into a Bronx cheer with fortissimo piano trill and flutter-tongued trumpet and horn. The piano itself, at the front of the stage, was bracketed by two mini-solo groups, flute, trumpet and bassoon forward and oboe, horn and contrabass clarinet aft. I’m not sure that this meant a fully successful spatial separation of sound, but the chamber-music-like texture embracing the piano was noticeable.

The individual inventions, if that is the right word, include the piano alone or almost alone, answered by the full orchestra with long, broad, singing melodies in the violins, the notes regularly spaced in time but often stretching through extremes of register, way up and way down. These long lines dominate much of the orchestral texture, though offset from time to time by sustained chords in the winds, and by explosions of percussion, sometimes flurries of wood, metal or drums. The piano by itself enjoyed passages of percussive upper-register chords tangled in filigrees of many tiny notes, with less emphasis on heavy low-register sonorities. One particularly striking piano passage involved simultaneous single notes in right hand and left hand spaced widely apart, with a lot of fourths and fifths which sounded almost consonant. Another commanded attention by its combative dialogue of single staccato notes scattered through the orchestra and answered by repeated notes in the piano. Conspicuously absent from the overall texture was the sound of divided and clustered strings, which in Carter’s Piano Concerto (1967) and Concerto for Orchestra (1970) reached the extremes of a separate staff in the score for each solo string, maybe 70 staves on a page. The result in this new work was a very clear string sound to contrast with the luminosity of the woodwinds and brass, adding up to a 15-minute work in which the ear never lost interest and was always able to focus on specifics of the sound.

An invigorating performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring followed the Carter premiere. I have written elsewhere in these pages about this work and offer only a couple of brief comments here for future reference. First, the trombones and first tuba at no. 186 in the “Sacrificial Dance” are too loud. Stravinsky’s marking, sf sempre, is ambiguous in the context of the score; these instruments should be balanced against the general f marcato of the others. (The bassoons are marked fff but this is necessary for them to successfully fight the brass.) Second, in the “Glorification of the Chosen One,” Stravinsky asks for a percussion stroke that usually gets lost in the shuffle, in which a triangle beater (a short steel rod) is scraped across the surface of the tamtam. I heard a performance in which the percussion was set on risers, and the tamtam forward, in which this effect came off brilliantly. It sounds best when the rod is swirled around the crimped edge of the tamtam. I commend this technique to all conductors and tamtam players.

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, music harmony.

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