in: Reviews

February 12, 2010

BSO- Best Night in 56 Years!


I don’t think I’ve ever heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra play more beautifully than they did last night, and I’ve been listening to them in concert for 56 years.

The February 11th  program was superbly challenging: Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for orchestra, op. 6; Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs; and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.  As my Tufts colleague Joseph Auner explained, in an expertly organized pre-concert talk, all of these works have social, personal, and national kinships; all the composers knew each other and each other’s work, and the three works frame the most historically important years of central Europe in the past century.

I’m not going to say much here about Berg’s Three Pieces, because I wrote the extensive notes about them in the BSO program book; I have already published two long and thorny analytical articles which anyone is welcome to fight through on my website at and .  The Three Pieces, dating from 1914-1915, are among the most complicated and difficult works ever written for orchestra; they are rich in extraordinary imagination, with wonderful, visionary musical ideas that often can’t be heard at all.  For these reasons they are seldom performed, but just a month ago I heard them expertly played by the New York Philharmonic directed by Alan Gilbert, and there’s no doubt that despite their daunting difficulty for performers and audience alike, they will endure.  Last night’s stunning performance was eloquent testimony to how much James Levine loves this music, how well he was able to communicate this love to the players, and how much of the Three Pieces’ terrible complexity he was able to transmit to the audience.

I looked for a few special details, trivial in themselves but perhaps useful for specialists.  First, although Berg’s revised version calls for the first trombonist to play the tenor trombone, I was relieved to see that the nearly impossible high E-flat in the Präludium was played on an alto trombone, as the original version of the score specified; Stravinsky called this “one of the noblest sounds Berg or anyone else ever caused to be heard in an orchestra.”  Another small detail: the “heavy hammer with nonmetallic sound” that Berg asked for turned out to be a long-handled gavel that looked like a croquet mallet.  (Mahler wrote for the same kind of hammer in the finale of his Sixth Symphony.  This is hardly surprising, because Berg’s third piece, the Marsch, seems directly inspired by that Mahler symphony.)

Strauss’s Four Last Songs, composed in 1948 when the composer was 84 years old — he outlived Mahler by 38 years, Berg by 13 — were his farewell to the world.  But whereas his Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings, completed in March 1945, are an in memoriam of despair for his own beloved Germany that lay in ruins at the end of World War II, the Four Last Songs are an old man’s tender reflection and love for what had been a richly varied life.

Maestro James Levine applauds Renee Fleming following the BSO's performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 4 (Michael J. Lutch)

Maestro James Levine applauds Renee Fleming following Mahler's Symphony No. 4 (Michael J. Lutch)

Renee Fleming’s performance, bold and sensitive at the same time, brought out the fine poetic subtleties of Hermann Hesse’s and Josef von Eichendorff’s romantic texts.  The orchestral accompaniment could not have been more fitting; James Levine had perfect control of every moment.  One could perceive Strauss’s undiminished mastery not only of expressive tonal harmony, freely chromatic in connecting distantly-related triads, but also of the unerring orchestral sense that he had acquired from the ground up as a teenager and as a lifelong conductor around central Europe.  From time to time I have rudely suggested that Richard Strauss seldom took the opportunity to write one note if 200 could be made to do the same job.  But in these peaceful and reflective last songs, every note tells.  Most commentators remark on Strauss’s recall, in the final song, of the Transfiguration theme from his early tone poem Tod und Verklärung (1889).  This was plain enough, and satisfying, but what I especially loved was the music depicting the two larks: two piccolos playing soft trills in their lowest, most delicate register.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, completed in 1901, is the least typical of his nine completed symphonies.  Except for the First Symphony in its revised version, the Fourth is Mahler’s shortest symphony; its instrumentation asks for expanded woodwinds and percussion but unlike all his other symphonies has no trombones or tuba, and thus is closer in spirit to the eighteenth-century orchestra of the later Haydn, and by extension Beethoven and early Schubert, that the genial and sometimes rustic melodic style of the first movement suggests.  Mahler’s characteristic use of chamber-music styles in the orchestra, where so many players have prominent solo roles in a carefully balanced sound, is apparent throughout the entire symphony, but especially in this first movement.  As Joseph Auner mentioned in his pre-concert talk, the movement is in sonata form, but one could never call it a conventional sonata form — the Exposition and its repeat are easy enough to distinguish, and the second-theme key change, but beyond that the outlines are blurred with sublime ingenuity.  There are at least a dozen important motives (Schoenberg’s pupil Erwin Stein remarked about this movement that Mahler “shuffles the themes like a pack of cards”) that are constantly developed in every section of the movement.  The Development section itself is quite long and ends shortly after the biggest climax in the movement but Mahler intentionally runs it into the Recapitulation by overlapping and distorting the expected beginning.  The listener needs to search in the complex orchestral sound for the opening staccato flutes and sleigh bells, which are superposed on some of the strangest counterpoint Mahler or anybody else ever wrote.  (For those with a score in hand, look for the fifth bar after no. 17.)  The Recapitulation is beautifully developed even while it is significantly shortened to just the right proportions.  James Levine approached the last two pages of the Coda by holding back the tempo very close to the point of collapse — the score is marked Langsam (slow) followed by molto ritenuto, and then a tempo — Sehr langsam und etwas zögernd (somewhat hesitating); it’s not as though Mahler didn’t ask for such dangerous breadth, although he did also mark it Grazioso.  As for the general tempo of the movement, every recording I’ve heard has very close to the same tempo that Levine used last night — and we remember that Mahler, after his very earliest works, never included metronome markings.  Something about this, at least, has been well understood in the past 99 years.

For the second movement, a strange Scherzo in 3/8 meter, the concertmaster, Malcolm Lowe, followed Mahler’s explicit directions in using another violin, kept on the bench at his side, for the Devil’s solos — the score stipulates that this violin have all four strings tuned up a whole step to make it sound “like a cheap fiddle,” and the exaggerated accents, bowings and dynamics contributed in like manner to the overall style.  Mahler certainly must have heard Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre but this devilish scherzo is much more subtle.  One could spend many hours analyzing the complex C minor harmony with its abundance of augmented triads that don’t seem to resolve properly.  (It’s too bad that Debussy probably never heard this work.  Apparently his only contact with Mahler was in 1910, when he walked out of the Second Symphony.)  I could go on and on about the amazing orchestral subtleties of just this movement, including the constantly-exploited differences between high- and low-register horns (the former alternately singing and boisterous, the latter serious and even sinister), the punctuational roles of the harp and timpani, the solo-string sounds that reappear and disappear (there is even one moment for a solo string quartet).

I was interested to read that Mahler felt that the third movement of the Fourth was his finest slow movement.  Certainly it is the dramatic centerpiece of the symphony, with the most deeply felt melodic expression.  Beginning with pp divided violas and cellos, the melody slowly moves upward, then into the second violins (seated on the right of the stage, as they must have been in Mahler’s own orchestra); as a single oboe joins the strings in the middle of the texture, the first violins enter and soar all the way up to high D as the horns and bassoons support the middle of the texture — this is a first glimpse of the “Joy in Heaven” to which the entire symphony pays homage.  The overall form has been called a double variation form, in two keys, G major and E minor, and in this regard it goes far beyond what was its likely model, the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  After a series of highly developed variations in alternation, the meter changes from 4/4 to 3/4 as the G major theme is resumed, and then “without the slightest preparation, suddenly the new tempo,” Allegretto subito — nicht eilen (don’t hurry), in 3/8 meter, as abruptly the style of the second movement appears, though it was left behind fifteen minutes earlier.  It continues pp for 25 bars, and then we are seemingly in the first movement once more, Allegro subito, 2/4 meter, staccato woodwinds, muted trumpets and triangle like a Schrammelmusik orchestra, then Allegro molto with added glockenspiel and a sudden crescendo to ff that just as suddenly dies down to the original Ruhevoll (Poco adagio) slow tempo.  The long movement is gradually easing into a G major close; but then there is an explosion, an enormous E major triad, fff, for no apparent reason.  In the middle of it, the trumpets and then the horns blaze out a pair of motives from the first movement.  The outburst is short-lived, and the movement gradually dies away (pppp) in the “heaven-reaching” top register of violin harmonics, on a D major harmony, the dominant of G.

The finale follows immediately, beginning with a pp G major triad, like the resolution of all that went before in the slow movement.  Mahler had written this eight years earlier, as a seventh movement of the already 90-minutes-long Third Symphony, and was wise to detach it.  Yet in constructing the entire symphony he knew that the final movement, a child’s vision of Heaven, had to be the culmination of three previous “earthly” movements.  Renee Fleming had sat impassively for three movements with arms folded before she could sing, and smiled at every felicitous turn of orchestral sound, but in the fourth movement she was able to get down to business, and her sound was as ravishing as it had been in the Strauss.  The score calls for her to be accompanied at all times extremely discreetly.  Mahler’s text, from the famous folk anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn, is preoccupied in three verses with all the good food there is to eat in Heaven.  (I disagree with Michael Steinberg’s translation of Fisolen as “string beans.”  The word is in none of my dictionaries, but when I got to Vienna in 1986 I found them as white beans — navy beans — at the Brunnenmarkt.  They are probably cognate with Italian fagioli.)  Once again the orchestration is sheer sorcery; to mention just one detail, when the oxen are being slaughtered for dinner, their cries for mercy are depicted by grace-note sighs in unison bass clarinet, very low horn, and solo double bass (in the line just before, the slaughtered lamb cries out in the oboe, three octaves higher).  The most obvious cyclic connection with the rest of the symphony is the repeated notes in flutes with sleigh bells, as at the  beginning of the first movement.  (How many works by anyone, besides this symphony and Mozart’s German Dances K. 600/602/605, use sleigh bells?)

The heavenly dimension concludes the fourth movement with the setting of the last verse of text, whose subject is not food but heavenly music: “There is no music on earth that can compare with ours.”  “St. Cecilia and her relatives are excellent court musicians” brings back harmony that we heard before in the second movement, but here in 4/4.  And it is concluding verse that explains the big E major outburst of the third movement: the entire last section of the symphony is in E major, ppp, “very quiet and mysterious to the end,” all the way to the repeated low E in the harp, in unison with the double basses alone.  The voice begins the verse after four superb instrumental gestures at the end of a slow but steady orchestral prelude:


There is much more I could say about this incomparably rich and expressive performance but I’m just going to stop.

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. i find it interesting that a comment that begins with a very bold claim about the quality of the PERFORMANCE goes on to devote itself almsot entirely to the MUSIC . . . not that the average music lover [which i think i am] could not gain enormously from de voto’s insights . . . but i would have valued more abot the performances themselves
    let me add my own two cents: 1. de voto is not exaggerating in describing levine’s way with holding back the tempo at the end of movement one: the music almost did come to a dead stop . . . but his way of easing back into the the joyful theme that brings the movmeent to an end was breathtaking, something that he could not have done ahd he played it safte with the molto tenuto
    2. i LOVE fleming’s voice, but in symphony hall — at least from a seat in the second balcony — she sounded underpowered . . . ove the years i’ve noticed taht singers i hear very clarly at the MET are often submerged in symphony hall, and i think the acostics do no favor the solo voice
    . . . i’d be curious to know if others had this same sense

    Comment by mike — February 13, 2010 at 7:16 pm

  2. i LOVE fleming’s voice, but in symphony hall — at least from a seat in the second balcony — she sounded underpowered . . . ove the years i’ve noticed taht singers i hear very clarly at the MET are often submerged in symphony hall, and i think the acostics do no favor the solo voice
    . . . i’d be curious to know if others had this same sense

    Mike, the second balcony is very freaky place to be with vocals in presence. It is very spoty and you very easily can get improper balance in one sit and much better balance just two sits away. I kind of know the “good” sits in there and the “bad” sits, let me know what you where and I would tell you if it was expected. Still, unfortunately it is very difficult to be absolutely certain and it is greatly depends how the hall is filed at given performance (presuming the conductors do the same things – a bold presumption!), how many women in the hall, how they are sited, the month of the performance and a few other things. I did not go to the live event and just heard the first part of the concert over FM. Leaving all still unresolved technical problems aside and can testify that the Ms. Fleming balance with BSO was perfect, nothing underpowered nether from Levine nor from Fleming. Ah, the lottery of the concertgoing!

    Comment by Romy The CaT — February 13, 2010 at 9:10 pm

  3. I was in the second balcony (seat A 17 on the left) on Thursday evening and didn’t get the feeling that Miss Fleming was at all underpowered. I thought she sang with a fine full voice. On the other hand, when I attend Handel and Haydn “Messiah” performances and sit in second balcony center, the singers often seem underpowered. So it may be that the second balcony center does not favor solo singers.

    There is a further concern which no review I’ve seen has mentioned. Throughout the Thursday performance Maestro Levine repeatedly brought his left hand across his chest toward his right arm, and on a number of occasions appeared actually to grasp his upper right arm. And although I didn’t make a connection until this evening, during the Berg he lost his grip on the baton and it ended up on the floor in front of the concertmaster. I’m guessing he was feeling some discomfort in his right arm or shoulder.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 13, 2010 at 10:01 pm

  4. Fisolen is indeed the Austrian word for green beans, and the Italian fagioli means fresh or dried beans. The genus is Phaseolus which originated in Mesoamerica and has been developed into countless varieties. Italian immigrants brought this common bean back to America in pasta e fagioli, which Otto and Schenck popularized in their 1927 song, Pastafazoola: “Don’t be a fool, eat pastafazool.”

    Comment by Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely — February 16, 2010 at 10:43 am

  5. I attended the Saturday evening performance—my seat is in the Orchestra, row N. I had trouble hearing Renee Fleming in the Straus Songs; she seemed to be under expressive. However, I heard her perfectly well in the Mahler, and found her to be very expressive. I have never had any problems hearing any other vocalists in Symphony Hall from that section in the orchestra.

    Comment by Renata Cathou — February 16, 2010 at 8:31 pm

  6. I agree with Mike’s comment and would add the following: anyone interested enough to read a concert review on what is really a blog are already sufficiently conversant with the scores in question to be aware of the points Prof. DeVoto makes at considerable length. What I am interested in is a detailed perspective on the PERFORMANCE by someone as knowledgable as he is. I attended the open rehearsal and came away, in general, with the same impression that Prof. DeVoto expresses in the first paragraph: the BSO is again a major orchestra to be taken seriously. It took Levine six years or so to pull this off, but they sound terrific now. I was moved, not only by the performances, but by the care and attention Levine devoted to making the already very good truly excellent, all for an audience, 80-90% of which, cannot tell the difference between Ozawa’s Mahler and Levine’s.

    Comment by Dan Farber — February 20, 2010 at 12:59 pm

  7. I attended the Thursday performance, and while I agree completely with De Voto’s impressions of the Berg, I was distinctly underwhelmed with Miss Fleming’s performance of the Strauss. She hit the early section with a heavy “alto blotto” sounds and then sang the high parts with a too light coloratura sound. There was no sense that her registers were at all on speaking terms with each other. On the other hand, she was perfectly luscious in the Mahler. So much for her being a Strauss singer.

    Comment by Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt — February 21, 2010 at 5:35 pm

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