in: Reviews

December 5, 2009

Fine Central Europe Repertoire from Dohnányi, Zimmerman, and BSO


Christoph von Dohnányi, one of the best living conductors and well known to Boston audiences, brought a fine program from central Europe, by composers that were born into or active in the Dual Monarchy, to the Boston Symphony Orchestra concert in Symphony Hall this week. (I attended the Thursday, December 3 performance.)

Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra was the third of his commissions by the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher; the first, the very successful Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1937), was followed by the equally popular Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1938). In the summer of 1939 Bartók was as deeply anxious as everyone else about the political crisis in central Europe that would soon exile him forever to the United States, but he was equally concerned about his mother’s failing health. Sacher’s assistance came at just the right time, and Bartók, in seclusion at Sacher’s villa in the Swiss Alps, completed the score of the Divertimento in just fifteen days.

The Divertimento has never been among Bartók’s most popular works. It was successfully premiered by Sacher in Basel in June 1940 in the composer’s absence; the American premiere, under Vladimir Golschmann, took place in St. Louis five months later. The Boston Symphony performed it in 1975, 1976, and 1983, the latter performance under Kurt Masur. Hearing it myself for the first time, I was struck by several things that seemed characteristically Bartókian. First among these is the alternation of strongly tonal melody of folksong character (a lot of F major) with dense chromatic counterpoint verging on complete atonality, with cluster chords. One notices these complete differences of style and technique side by side in the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, in the string quartets, and even in the schmaltzy-romantic Concerto for Orchestra (1944), but they are so much part of a familiar Bartók idiom that one is seldom bothered by them. Other trademark devices in the Divertimento made for perceptible structural coherence: broad melody in octaves or double octaves; an explosive fortissimo high D, unaccompanied, that heralded the approach of another big gesture; and a Scotch snap, an accented thirty-second note followed by a double-dotted eighth, that can also be found in a succession of Bartók favorites from The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin to his atmospheric piano pieces like Out of Doors. For all that, there was a lot of triple meter, a feeling of waltz rhythm from time to time as well. If this work was Bartók’s farewell to central Europe, it had some nostalgia, too.

Arriving in America virtually penniless, having left his familiar world and his royalties behind, Bartók was able to create a career of distinction all over again, but it was financially harsh and all too brief; he died in 1945 at the age of 64, with his medical and burial expenses paid for by ASCAP. If he had lived just one more year he would have seen his music suddenly achieve great popularity all over Europe and America, a popularity that has hardly diminished to this day.

Dohnányi obviously loved the Bartók score, and his expressive style was well modulated; most of the first movement’s triple meter could be conducted one beat to the bar, which permitted a lot of expressive shaping. The orchestra liked it as well. Much of the string writing involved solo groups, nicely balanced against a ripieno of the full ensemble.

Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) remains something of a puzzle among 20th-century composers. His style has one foot firmly rooted in post-Dvorák romantic tonality and the other foot eagerly exploring the complexities of his own time, from the harmony of Stravinsky’s neoclassicism to Bartók’s dense chromaticism, and confidently mastering all of these. Like Bartók, he was a refugee from central Europe who benefited decisively from Serge Koussevitzky’s enthusiasm and material support. Martinu flourished in America, teaching at Princeton for three years and composing six symphonies and an immense amount of other music, much of it still unpublished and unknown. He left America in 1953 for France, and died six years later in Switzerland; in 1979 his remains were disinterred and brought back to Czechoslovakia.

In 1942, Mischa Elman was sufficiently impressed by Martinu’s orchestral work to commission a violin concerto from him. Under Koussevitzky’s direction, he gave two performances in 1944 and one at Tanglewood two years later, the only previous performances by the Boston Symphony. One wonders if Elman found Martinu’s violin concerto (No. 2) grateful to play; it struck me as a structurally uneven work, not much in the vein of a typical romantic concerto even though dominated by a lush harmony reminiscent of some of the familiar 19th-century concertos — but the same complaint, if it is a complaint, could be lodged against Stravinsky’s violin concerto. There weren’t a lot of fireworks for the violin, but there was plenty of singing melody. The first movement has a rich harmony full of the same inverted-ninth chords that Ravel was so fond of; but it ends so abruptly that I was surprised that it was over, with the solo violin almost suspended in air, as it were. The second movement, with a fine dialogue between with wind choir (in 7/4 meter, I thought, without seeing the score) and the soloist, was particularly amiable. The third movement definitely got down to real virtuosic display, and very successfully, too, with violinist and conductor sprinting to the brilliant final chord.

The soloist in Thursday’s concert was Frank Peter Zimmermann, who clearly seemed to be enjoying the work even though there were times when he was at odds with the orchestra. As sometimes happens in other Martinu works that I have heard, there were times when I thought the orchestration too heavy, especially in the brass, which were too consistently high-register and fortissimo. It didn’t matter that the violin wasn’t playing during these big episodes; they were just too big by themselves. This wasn’t a problem with Martinu’s Fantaisies symphoniques, a Boston Symphony commission during the Munch years; when Martinu died in 1959, it was played at Tanglewood, where I heard it as a student, and I still remember its warm impressionistic sound.

After the intermission came an old favorite, Dvorák’s Eighth Symphony, which was called the Fourth Symphony when I was younger, as the “New World” was called the Fifth. Dvorák declined to publish his first four symphonies, but they achieved some popularity after his death. He doubtless sensed that his symphonic works were too long-winded, but this problem decreased as he went along, and the “New World” is at once his most concise as well as his last and greatest symphony. The Eighth is not far behind in this regard. The Seventh is considerably longer and has distinct echoes of Brahms — good echoes, to be sure — but the Eighth is pure Dvorák. Its orchestral richness is memorable throughout, from the divided violas and cellos at the beginning of the first movement to the brilliant tutti in the finale. One can go home cheerfully singing and whistling all the melodies. And how many symphonies can you think of whose main key is G major? Several by Haydn (88, 94, 100 among the later ones), but none by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann or Mendelssohn, and after Dvorák the only G major symphony I can think of is Mahler’s great Fourth.

Michael Steinberg’s notes point to an influence of the slow movement (Marcia funebre) from Beethoven’s Eroica on the slow movement of Dvorák’s Eighth. I must say that I find that parallel difficult to hear, but there’s another resemblance to the Eroica that I can think of: the structure of the finale. In both works, the finale begins with variations, then breaks into free development, returns to another bunch of variations, and concludes with a coda. Both variation sections in the Dvorák are quiet and expressive, and both are rudely interrupted by the same fortissimo variation in faster tempo, with boisterous high-register horn trills that must have been sensational in their day. The coda gets even more frenzied, climaxing with a downward octave-wide scale for two trumpets and two trombones — slurred and not tongued — that has to be heard to be believed.Dvorak 4th trombones

Notwithstanding this gestural bravado, one could hear the difference between the fullest brass of the Dvorák, which was as loud as necessary and no more, and the brass of the Martinu, which was more than necessary. Dohnányi’s direction was energetic and controlled, and the performance as hearty as the old Bruno Walter recording that I grew up with, thoroughly enjoyable.

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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