in: Reviews

January 29, 2010

Levine Returns with, Harold in Italy

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For last night’s program (Jan. 28) from the BSO it was good to have James Levine back on the podium and in good shape after his medical hiatus.  The weather provided its own signal of a triumphant return: shortly before I got to Symphony Hall there was a dramatic and delightful snow squall, with blustery wind and blizzard conditions for just a few minutes.

I remember the vivid premiere of Elliott Carter’s Interventions for piano and orchestra during last season.  Dialogues for the same combination, dating from 2003, is a twelve-minute work with more abundant virtuoso outbursts, and more direct back-and-forth between piano and orchestra, but the same kind of long melodic lines for the violins, and noticeable pointillistic contributions from the winds — I didn’t see whether the English horn player, principal Robert Sheena, got a separate bow at the end but judging from the prominence of his solo role, he should have.

There were also different kinds of piano writing that weren’t so prominent in the later work but that were refreshing in this one: bundles of rapidly-figured noodling notes repeated in close texture — one wonders that the pianist didn’t get his fingers in a tangle — and from time to time single opposed legato lines in the two hands, alternating a note at a time.  At one point there was a brazen “horn sixth” in the piano — one of those typical Carter surprising moments.  There wasn’t a lot of rapid writing for the orchestra, nor much low-register material for the piano except for the few dramatic single notes at the end.  It would be good to have both works paired on a CD.  I’m reminded, too, by the title; the late Earl Kim wrote an excellent Dialogues for piano and orchestra half a century ago that we all ought to hear sometime, a work that is as sparely post-Schoenberg as this Carter work is aggressively post-Stravinsky (that is, the Stravinsky of the Movements for piano and orchestra of 1959).  Pierre-Laurent Aimard had no difficulties bringing off the brittle but colorful solo role.

Berlioz’s Harold en Italie of 1834, which the composer called a symphony, has been rudely referred to as the world’s longest viola joke.  But it wasn’t a joke on Paganini, who commissioned it in order to exhibit his newly-acquired Guarnerius viola but expressed disappointment that there wasn’t enough show-off.  Berlioz certainly managed to feature the viola in a poetic way that Paganini later came to appreciate: as a guided tour through Byron’s Childe Harold in Europe.  It began “In the Mountains” with a long Adagio introduction, culminating in the viola’s entrance with the harp, paired clarinets, and four solo violins, all ppp, very dramatic in its dynamic restraint.  (This famous passage is actually lifted and reworked from Berlioz’s Rob Roy Overture of 1832, with an English horn substituting for the viola melody.)  The Allegro that follows takes over where the “Ronde du Sabbat” in the Symphonie fantastique left off — a fast 6/8, full of short gestures and extreme contrasts in dynamics — an explosive ff might be followed by ppp two beats later.  There are plenty of fireworks for the soloist along the way, but the virtuoso style is really downplayed in the later movements.

The second movement is probably the most famous part of Harold in Italy, a “Procession of pilgrims singing the evening hymn.”  It has a steady walking bass line, plucked cellos and basses, throughout, interrupted only by the recurring Angelus bell — a two-bar C-natural in an E major context.  The solo viola represents Harold’s contemplation of the scene from the sidelines, with the Adagio theme from the first movement as a memory guide.  The middle section, marked “Canto religioso,” is one of Berlioz’s strangest and yet finest inspirations; the ostinato bass walks on steadily while the winds and strings alternate in sustained, chorale-like chords, and the solo viola bows arpeggios back and forth sul ponticello (near the bridge).  The rambling modal harmony of this passage is weird and fascinating, and I am convinced that it had a considerable influence on the harmonic experiments of the Russian “Five,” who all heard Berlioz conduct the work in Russia in 1867.

The third movement, “Serenade of an Abruzzi-mountaineer to his sweetheart,” is a joyful scherzo with bouncing dotted-rhythm accompaniment and a more active solo part for the viola.  Nevertheless it is the calm before the storm, a wild “Orgy of the brigands.”  (“Brigand” is a word that, since Watergate, has lost the colorful sense it had for Berlioz and for Bizet in Carmen.)   The movement begins with short Allegro frenetico outbursts alternating seriatim with reminiscences from the three previous movements, like the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but when it gets going it represents as difficult an orchestral challenge as anything Berlioz ever wrote; the Alla breve tempo marking is 104 to the half-note, or slightly more than one second to the measure.  James Levine took this tempo seriously, and the result was terrific, indeed, thoroughly frenetic, with incisive, confident playing from all parts of the orchestra.  Much of writing consists of chords in attacked simultaneously in rapid succession by the full ensemble and requiring absolute precision, and that was absolutely what we all heard last night.

Steven Ansell, principal viola of the BSO, played the solo with fine warmth and projection, and with obvious affection for the part.  There may have been one or two frantic moments in the soloist’s rapid passage work, for the average listener doesn’t recognize how easily the viola’s tone can be covered in the middle and upper registers, where one expects a solo violin, playing the same notes, to be heard distinctly.  But Berlioz was careful to plan for this, and in his day there was no more sensitive and brilliant orchestrator than he.

Ravel was the featured composer after the intermission, and we heard a second fine performance by Pierre-Laurent Aimard in the Concerto pour la main gauche.  Ravel composed this one-movement work and his better-known G-major Concerto in three movements at approximately the same time, and there were certainly moment where one could hear echoes of the one in the other.  The left-hand concerto has a “jazz” section, with blue notes and smeared notes and a bouncing Lydian-Mixolydian melody, but who ever heard of any jazz in regular 6/8 meter?  This was Ravel’s most successful joke in a concerto that otherwise is reflective and even somber, compared with the two-handed concerto which is full of hi-jinks.  I do think the orchestra sometimes didn’t work as hard on this piece as on the Berlioz; the percussion at the beginning of the “jazz” section was so loud it obscured the ff trumpets.  But the contrabassoon solo was just right.  (A story that is philosophical but may be apocryphal: one of Ravel’s friends asked him how he was coming along with his new concerto.  “Just fine,” Ravel replied, “I’ve written everything but the themes.”)

I have written elsewhere in these pages about his Daphnis et Chloé; this has always been a favorite with the Boston Symphony, but I hadn’t realized that the Second Suite alone had been performed at least 226 times before last night, 95 of those under Charles Munch’s direction between 1949 and 1965.  And yet the first BSO performance of the magnificent complete 55-minute ballet, with chorus, came as late as 1955, I assume coinciding with the superb recording that was made that year (you can get it in a CD reissue, RCA Red Seal BMG Classics 82876-61388-2-RE1, though the booklet doesn’t contain the nice drawings by Andy Warhol that were in the original LP).  Most interesting of all: the first BSO performances of the Suite were conducted in December 1917 by none other than Karl Muck, one of the greatest conductors of his time or any other; this was barely two months before he was arrested and interned as an enemy alien (he was in fact a Swiss citizen) in a tidal wave of anti-German feeling after the United States entered the Great War.

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.

1 Comment

  1. The second movement was very fine when I heard it on Thursday. I was moved, and I think the rest of the audience felt the same; there was a long moment of silence after the final notes before the inevitable coughing and shifting in seats.

    Comment by Sam — January 30, 2010 at 1:15 am

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