in: Reviews

March 27, 2010

Lieberson Songs of Love and Sorrow with Gerald Finley Premiered at BSO

by

James Levine’s refractory back trouble has once again driven him from the BSO podium, and all of us can only hope that he will be speedily repaired and recovered. In the meantime, a succession of stand-in masters has been scheduled. This week’s locum tenens is the young Jayce Ogren, recently the assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, who took over a big BSO program at very short notice. I am going to sharply criticize his conducting style, so let me say from the beginning that I congratulate him for doing as well as he did on Thursday, March 25. He was doubtless wise to request that Debussy’s Jeux be replaced on the program; Jeux is an immensely complex and subtle score and would have required too much rehearsal time when Ogren surely needed every minute he could get for the new work, Peter Lieberson’s Songs of Love and Sorrow, with Gerald Finley as baritone soloist.

The replacement was in fact two works, and they were a serious surprise: Sibelius’s Finlandia and Valse triste. Finlandia is one of the most popular, indeed shameless, pieces of concert bombast of all time; I remember when Roger Sessions, hearing it on a program at Princeton in 1961, called it “the price of admission.” I was astounded to learn, from Robert Kirzinger’s pre-concert talk, that it had not been played by the Boston Symphony in 60 years. The Valse triste, a strangely subtle and lovely piece, was last played by the BSO in 1912 — just eight years after it was composed. Jayce Ogren led these pieces for all they were worth, indeed, holding back the soft strings in the Valse triste to the point of pppp quasi niente when his stick didn’t move at all, and this was effectively contrasted against the Mahler-like Ländler G major spirit of the faster sections. Four solo violins glowed pianissimo at the end. The Valse triste is certainly deserving of occasional revival, but I for one will be happy to wait another 60 years to hear Finlandia in Symphony Hall again.

Many in the audience would have remembered the premiere five years ago of Peter Lieberson’s beautiful Neruda Songs when they were sung by his wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, only a year before her death. Last night’s premiere of a sequel, five Songs of Love and Sorrow, also on texts by Neruda, was a moving tribute to the memory of the love they shared. The text setting is crystalline throughout, the declamation wide-ranging but always comprehensible, the accompaniment richly supportive and never overpowering.

 Baritone Gerald Manley and conductor Jayce Ogren   (Michael J. Lutch photo).

Baritone Gerald Finley and conductor Jayce Ogren (Michael J. Lutch photo).

Gerald Finley, baritone, was an ideal communicator, with an obvious and full understanding of the expressive text. What is most moving about the whole cycle is the fine sensitivity of the chromatic tonal harmony, reminiscent of Austro-German Impressionism (yes, there was such a thing, though it was influenced by the French variety) by composers that are mostly forgotten today — I thought particularly of Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony that inspired Alban Berg, and the operas of Franz Schreker. The beginning of the first Neruda song, “Des las estrellas que admiré…” featured Martha Babcock’s solo cello oscillating back and forth, much like the D minor oscillating fifths in Mahler’s second song, “Autumn loneliness,” in Das Lied von der Erde, and if I’m not mistaken, a variant of this beginning reappeared at the front of Lieberson’s fourth song, “Tal vez no ser es ser sin que tú seas…” — a fine cyclic connection. The oscillating fourths or fifths actually seemed like a leitmotif in the whole cycle, in which the divided strings (sometimes with harp) often predominate in the texture — indeed, I felt that from time to time there was rather too much doubling, and that a more differentiated wind sound would have been welcome. Sometimes there was a wind gesture that stood out, like the clarinets’ parallel thirds, mariachi-style, in the second song, or the horn thirds in the fourth song. The end of the last song, on G, with piano, flute, English horn, and octaves in the strings, was especially effective, reminding one of how tonality, like love, is all-powerful and unifying no matter how varied and chromatically intense. It’s true that a friend of mine, a fellow composer and a very good one, expressed some disappointment in these songs, because he had long admired the gritty atonal environment of Lieberson’s first Piano Concerto, premiered by the Boston Symphony nearly 30 years ago. But the fact is that many of us today are at home in different idioms, tonal and atonal and a spectrum in between, when the individual compositional personality remains consistent. I hope to hear these songs recorded on the same CD as their handsome predecessor. Orchestral songs on Spanish texts are rare enough — Granados’s tonadillas and de Falla’s El amor brujo are good examples — and these very different new songs are splendid additions to that repertory.

After the intermission came Schubert’s “Great” Symphony in C major, D 944, of 1825, composed when he was 28 years old, and the one symphony of his full maturity that he completed (the famous B minor symphony in two movements, D 759, is only the best of half a dozen unfinished Schubert symphonies). The very first Boston Symphony concert I ever attended, in 1954, had this work on the program (conducted by Charles Munch), and it changed my life. Jayce Ogren did his best with it last night, and there’s no doubt that the orchestra brought it off well, but on their own terms and not the conductor’s. Most of the time the players weren’t watching him — even though they undoubtedly knew the music well, they had many thousands of high-speed notes to keep track of. Ogren did succeed in a few manneristic moments, including a long, disturbing ritardando before the first-movement recapitulation and an accelerando before the Più vivo in the coda — neither of which is called for in the score. The second movement, Andante con moto, generally went extremely well, with beautiful expression, especially in the solo winds — though I object to the slower tempo, a habit of almost every conductor, in the Neapolitan section right after the fff climax. The Scherzo also was handled with all the requisite brightness and brisk tempo, including the Ländler that forms the expansive Trio section. But in the finale Ogren failed to override the orchestra’s comfortable Allegro moderato, which is what it sounded like — he certainly tried to push the tempo in the codetta of the exposition and again before the coda, but the orchestra refused to follow. Schumann, who rescued the manuscript of this symphony from oblivion, dubbed it the “Symphony of Heavenly Length,” and nowhere does that appellation apply more forcefully than in the brilliant finale, which Schubert marked Allegro vivace; it is 1154 bars long (1538 bars long if you take the exposition repeat, which nobody ever does). It is absolutely essential to maintain a breakneck speed in this movement, and one conductor who succeeded was George Szell in the older Cleveland recording, made at a time when the Cleveland Orchestra was the best in the world; at a metronome marking of 108-112 to the measure, Szell’s finale weighs in at about ten and a half minutes of amazing energy. Last night’s performance was at a sedate Toscanini-like tempo, more like thirteen minutes. The fortissimo was there, but not the fire and fury.

I would suggest that Jayce Ogren’s conducting style can be blamed for what I missed in the Schubert. He puts forth an unseemly amount of what I think of as a midwestern technique of beating time, with too much mirroring with the left hand, too much conducting with the head, too much knee-bending and moving from side to side, one foot to the other. This makes for a kind of dance on the podium, though it often looks like vertical swimming; there’s no question that audiences like this visual display and expect to see it. But I think it interferes with good communication to the orchestra, detracting from independent motion of the hands, and especially that the large beat makes it difficult to keep precise time in very fast tempo. To Ogren’s credit, I liked when he sometimes beat time with his left hand, using the baton for a different kind of visual control on the right of the orchestra; but when the beat is so high, wide, and handsome, and mirrored left and right, everything looks like a downbeat. (It was said of Fritz Reiner that a fly could sit on the end of his baton for an entire concert and not be shaken off; that is an extreme of another kind, of course.) I also give Ogren top credit for keeping his gestural exaggeration very much in the background in the Lieberson songs; he was admirably concentrated on providing the right kind of support for the singer and on closely observing every detail of a complex score that he had had to learn very quickly.

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.

14 Comments

  1. I did not hear Robert Kirzinger’s pre-concert talk and cannot say what information he was relying on with respect to the history of “Finlandia” performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. However, the Orchestra has played “Finlandia” more recently than 60 years ago. In fact, the piece was recorded in April 1976 by the Orchestra, with Colin Davis conducting, during his tenure as Principal Guest Conductor. The performance appeared with Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 on a Philips LP and was re-released in 1995 as part of a Philips Classics two-CD album containing Symphonies 3, 6, and 7, among other works.

    Perhaps, then, “Valse triste” was also played by the Orchestra after 1912. It seems hard to imagine that Serge Koussevitzky never programmed that piece.

    Comment by Stephen Ault — March 27, 2010 at 6:17 pm

  2. It would have been nicer had DeVoto’s fine review observed journalistic rudiments and specified which performance he was reviewing, though I suppose one is to infer Thursday night despite the misleading date slug atop it. The evening was kind of tensionless indeed — I said to my host that the band simply did not fear this kid enough, with most everyone lazing as they did (a little) over entrances and exits and much else until the end of the Schubert, did not fear him the way they do Levine, who achieves the right balance b/w the driven and the lovingly inflected.

    As a long-ago Midwesterner I don’t know if geography accounts for Ogren’s lacks (Szell surely became a Midwesterner of sorts), but he’s clearly a kid, and this was a Thursday, so that seemed to be that.

    Tonight (Sat), which I listen to as I type, sounds way crisper and more ensemble, almost tending toward the Levine, and in the last movement those unending violin giddyups, like a cosmic palm-on-thigh clip-clop handjive, are really something as the horses of the universe wheel and wheel. So yay for rehearsal.

    I do have to complain about the oddly deaf and banal conclusion of Steven Ledbetter’s otherwise fine note: “The mood passes from mystery and darkness to the glorious sunshine of C major as the symphony ends in a blaze of glory.” Mr Ledbetter, what kind of sunshine is it? Ah, yes, okay, and so it ends in a blaze of what?

    Comment by david moran — March 27, 2010 at 9:13 pm

  3. Richard Dyer’s program notes say that “it has been more than 30 years since the BSO has programmed” either of the Sibelius works.

    Comment by Bill — March 27, 2010 at 9:23 pm

  4. I presume Robert Kirzinger had access to the same performance records that are used in preparing the weekly BSO program notes.

    The fact that the Finlandia was recorded in 1976 certainly does not prove that it was played in concert.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 27, 2010 at 9:36 pm

  5. If the tempi in the Schubert were too slow, it strikes me as more of an indication of lack of professionalism among the players than a deficiency of the conductor when they refuse to follow his attempted accelerandi in the fourth movement.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 27, 2010 at 10:25 pm

  6. Robert Kirzinger and I are one of the very few who have access to the facts of the matter.
    I xeroxed the BSO performance cards of both the Finlandia and the Valse Triste in preparation of the Saturday night radio broadcast. Alas, since Mr. Ogren came out before the usual time, this part of the script was never read. Here are the parts that would answer many of the issues in the previous comments. First Finlandia:

    Its astonishing to look at the BSO performance card for Finlandia. Max Fiedler led it on a subscription program in November 1908, and within a year the BSO had performed Finlandia in Baltimore, New York, Cleveland, Columbus, Waterbury, Cambridge, back in Boston the following season, Washington, Brooklyn, New York again and Hartford. Talk about a hit. Max Fiedler had led the work 22 times in roughly a 3 year period.
    Karl Muck had much the same idea during his tenure, 16 performances, mainly on tour, including the historic trip to San Francisco, between 1914 and 1917.
    The same is true with Koussevitzky. He saw Finlandia as a wonderful showpiece for the Boston Symphony while on the road. But it seldom appeared on a subscription program and the only Koussevitzky broadcast came from a concert in Milwaukee, December 8th, 1945.
    Charles Munch only conducted it once, November 6th and 7th, 1953. And the BSO hasn’t performed it in concert since.
    Thus we present you with the amazing fact that until this week, the Boston Symphony hasn’t performed Finlandia in concert since the composer died in 1957.
    There ARE however, two excellent recordings, first with Colin Davis made here at Symphony Hall on April 6th, 1976 and with then with Vladimir Ashkenazy, recorded on March 9th, 1992.

    And then with the Valse Triste, the facts are even more amazing:

    Next another popular piece by Sibelius, a piece so popular that it hasn’t been performed on a BSO subscription program for nearly a century—that’s right not since Max Fiedler conducted it April 1st and 2nd, 1910, the Valse Triste.

    That’s not to say it hasn’t been performed by the BSO, its been recorded twice by this orchestra, first for an album of shorter works by Sibelius by Sir Colin Davis made in March 10th, 1980 and then on March 9th, 1992 when Vladimir Ashkenazy added it as a filler for his recording of the Symphony #2 by Sibelius.

    There are several further performances by Max Fiedler, so Robert Kirzinger is exactly right (as usual) I had to keep my script to a minimum knowing that Ogren was to remain on stage, so I didn’t mention the later tour performances.
    None of this material was read on air. Hope you find this trivia entertaining. I found it too amazing not to share.

    Comment by Brian Bell — March 27, 2010 at 11:38 pm

  7. My experience is that an outstanding — falsifying? — performance of “Finlandia” can make the piece sound much better than the way it sounds, so to speak.

    The Pops under Arthur Fiedler must surely have played it often — I have a faint impression of something I heard once (or maybe several times) on my old Grundig 2035 radio, most likely from WCRB’s toe-curlingly awful Monday-thru-Friday “Table at Pops” show.

    According to H. Earle Johnson, “Symphony Hall” (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950), the BSO performed “Finlandia” in 1908, 1910, 1914, 1917, 1926, 1937, and 1939; and “Valse triste” in 1910, 1926, and 1939.

    And a recording exists — or did exist — of a performance of “Finlandia” by the Berlin State Opera Orchestra under the composer’s brother-in-law Armas Jarnefelt.

    Finally, “Finlandia” and the 1939 World’s Fair. For some reason I connect the two.

    Anyone up for a exhaustive critical discography of the piece?

    What, no takers?

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 28, 2010 at 12:39 am

  8. The virtual instantaneousness of the medium we’re using here gave me an idea.

    What about live play-by-play blogging of BSO broadcasts? Something similar is done all the time, of course, with political and sports events.

    This is NOT to be confused, however, with doing the same thing in the concert hall — as here: http://www.spectator.co.uk/arts-and-culture/all/552816/death-by-laptop.thtml

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 28, 2010 at 10:43 am

  9. Or better still, the Met?

    From The Spectator: “Ill Met by Moonlight: Robin Holloway on when good opera is ruined by tack presentation” — here:

    http://www.spectator.co.uk/arts-and-culture/all/628791/ill-met-by-moonlight.thtml

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 28, 2010 at 11:34 am

  10. With all due respect (and I mean that most sincerely), setting up a dichotomy between Szell and Toscanini in the last movement of the Schubert Ninth ain’t gonna fly even one little bit. The first three AT recordings at hand have finale timings between 10:39 (1947 NBC Symphony) and 11:14 (1941 Philadelphia Orchestra), nowhere near “thirteen minutes.” Christ, even Furtwaengler’s 1951 BPO recording is 11:32. Maybe you should have chosen Celibidache (13:06 1994 Munich Philharmonic) or really late Klemperer (if there is one) as the other example. (I didn’t check either of Szell’s commercial recordings but I trust he is in exactly the AT ballpark.)

    It’s just possible that Levine and the BSO played “Valse triste” as an encore on the 2007 European tour; he programs it quite often that way. I admit that doesn’t count as “having been performed on subscription concerts.” But the piece gets played more often than simple “downtown” statistics will ever evidence.

    Comment by Ken — March 28, 2010 at 12:28 pm

  11. Did anyone perchance record the CRB broadcast of this? The Lieberson songs blew me away. I attended Saturday and went back again tonight. I anticipate them releasing these on CD, in the meanwhile I’d like to be able to listen to them. There is only a brief snippet of the ending online.

    Comment by Sean — March 30, 2010 at 10:58 pm

  12. In case anyone is still reading this thread, I should point out that today’s Financial Times contains a brief and favorable review of this concert (don’t know which day the critic saw). You can find the review here: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/7eae618c-3d26-11df-b81b-00144feabdc0.html

    Comment by Vance R. Koven — April 1, 2010 at 1:54 pm

  13. I’m glad to have the correction by Ken. It’s been at least 40 years since I heard the Toscanini NBC recording (the one in the light blue LP jacket) and I’m certainly relying on memory. The Celibidache I haven’t heard but it must be glacial. I heard the Klemperer forty years ago but don’t remember his tempo for the finale; I dismissed the recording as a whole because he directs the strings to play pizzicato in the Trio of the Scherzo. (It’s funny to hear that Klemperer’s tempos tend generally to slowness when in Beethoven they seem so vital, especially in the _Eroica_ and Leonore 3, and when his version of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony has the FASTEST tempor for the slow movement of any I ever heard!) It takes all kinds. As for the Sibelius corrections, those too are surprising and very welcome; but I still think _Finlandia_ ought to be dropped from the repertory everywhere for another half century.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — April 1, 2010 at 3:26 pm

  14. The FT reviewer’s word for the Schubert performance, “absorbing,” pretty well describes how felt about it.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 6, 2010 at 2:01 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.