in: Reviews

May 6, 2009

Mozart Yin Berlioz Yang in Harmony with Davis/BSO

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Colin Davis, now in his eighties but conducting with the zeal of a tyro, led three remarkable concerts last week of Mozart and Berlioz, two polar-opposite composers for whom he exhibits a very special affinity.  Sir Colin had programmed Mozart’s Piano Concerto #25 in C, K. 503 with soloist Imogen Cooper, and Berlioz massive Te Deum.  These were the final concerts of the orchestra’s 128th season.

I was fortunate to hear the three concerts in succession, and it was instructive to follow the arc of interpretation and expression which was carried through the performances.  By Saturday, venerable Symphony Hall virtually levitated.

The 25th Piano Concerto follows in the wake of several very popular Mozart concerto predecessors, and this might be partial explanation for K. 503’s relative absence from concert platforms.  In structure and content, however, it yields nothing to its forebears, and once heard reminds the listener yet again that perfection was the composer’s stock in trade at this point in his life.  While all three movements of K. 503 exhibit extraordinary creativity, its Andante is surprisingly elusive, somewhat quirky, and tricky to bring off with coherence and assurance.  This, too, may explain why this concerto isn’t played as often as it should be.  In the hands of Maestro Davis and Imogen Cooper, however, there was never a moment’s concern.

Ms. Cooper has appeared with the BSO several times before, once deputizing on extremely short notice for an indisposed Maria Tipo, and it was evident from her first appearance on stage Thursday evening that the orchestra members hold her in high esteem.  Throughout her three performances, her playing was notable for its clarity of articulation and observance of the most elegantly planned internal rubati within and at the ends of phrases.  Her legato was seamless, and her passagework finely faceted.  At appropriate times she would collaboratively soften her touch when her part was obviously accompagniato to the orchestra, and she would visibly engage with the instrumentalists – in short, an ideal Mozart keyboard artist.  She and Mr. Davis were hand-in-glove throughout.  The ovation from the orchestra at the work’s end nearly equaled that of the enthusiastic audience.

I was a member of John Oliver’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus in the early 70s when Colin Davis first performed the Berlioz Te Deum with the BSO, and those concerts remain happy, indelible memories.  Mr. Davis is now 36 years older, and he now brings with him the aura of a beloved Emeritus.  Yet, there was no diminishment in his energy or commitment to this sprawling score.  Berlioz had described this music to Liszt as “…colossal, Babylonian, Ninevite…” and that it surely is.  The instrumentation calls for tenor soloist, two choruses, children’s chorus, organ, 4 flutes, 4 oboes, 4 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 6 trombones, ophicleide, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals (5 pairs in these concerts), snare drums, harps, and strings.

Berlioz had hoped this hymn of thanksgiving and praise would be ordered performed by Emperor Louis-Napoleon upon the latter’s election as President of the Republic in December, 1848, but as Berlioz scholar Hugh MacDonald tells us, Louis-Napoleon “…alas, had worse taste in music than his uncle (Bonaparte), and never recognized the composer…in his own circle.”  Thus, the work waited until 1855 for its premiere at the inaugural concert celebrating a new organ in the Church of Saint-Eustache.  It was to be the only performance in Berlioz’s lifetime.

Four of the work’s six movements call for most of the mighty assembled forces, yet the most personal expression is to be heard in the Dignare, Domine third movement and Te ergo quæsumus fifth, the latter offering an Italianate and beautifully limned tenor solo, eloquently and sensitively sung in these concerts by Matthew Polenzani.

There is no denying the power of sound summoned by Berlioz in the Te Deum’s more fully-scored moments:  full-out fortissimi for organ and all three choruses in the first movement, huge full-brass cymbal-capped crescendi in the second movement follow the chorus’s three-times-sung “Pleni sunt coeli et terra majestatis gloriae tuae” text, and the final movement’s dizzying pursuit of an abyss-threatening finale – this in a work of thanksgiving?! – replete with trumpet fanfares to set up the final plunge.  Berlioz the showman and amazingly original thinker and musical experimenter was on full display.

Throughout, John Oliver’s splendid Tanglewood Chorus was above and beyond the considerable vocal challenges of this most unusual work.  The punishingly high tessiturae for bass and tenor would quickly tire a less-adept choir.  Singing from memory as always, only a fleeting early soprano entrance in Friday’s Dignare briefly distracted from what was to be three extraordinary examples of powerful, well-placed, disciplined vocal traversals of a very demanding work.  They were the heroes of all on stage, with the chorus alto section particularly opulent in tone.  The PALS Children’s Chorus under Alysoun Kegel was attentive, solid and secure.  And, needless to say, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, perpetuating its long and happy association with Berlioz, covered itself in sonic glory.

Colin Davis, thankfully, will be back next season.  Do NOT miss him – he is one of the great conductors, and the BSO holds him in very high esteem.  That combination assures concerts of the highest order, all too rare today.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 29 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful to read and learn!

    Comment by D Patterson — May 7, 2009 at 11:18 am

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