It might have been their first-ever public concert at Symphony Hall, as was first thought, or it might not (they played for an NEC commencement in 1995—does that count?); after all, New England Conservatory has been around since 1867 and Symphony Hall since 1900, so there might have been another occasion, what with institutional memories not as agile as they used to be. Be that as it may, on April 7 the NEC Philharmonia under Hugh Wolff did play there, to a nearly full house, on a public concert co-sponsored by Celebrity Series of Boston (so glad not to have to remember what bank-of-the-week precedes that name). The program consisted of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the Schumann Cello Concerto with Armenian cellist and NEC Artist Diploma candidate Narek Hakhnazarian, and the Shostakovich Tenth Symphony, plus a lagniappe.
Samuel Barber came to public attention and controversial renown with the 1936 première by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra of his (First) Essay for Orchestra and this scaling-up of the slow movement of his String Quartet of several years earlier. It remains far and away Barber’s most popular piece and, for reasons that bemused even the composer, a ubiquitous accompaniment to funerals of state. The string orchestra version obviously gains in grandeur some of what it loses in timbral intensity from the quartet version. Your correspondent once performed a compare-and-contrast exercise between this work and the slow movement of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s closely contemporaneous and quite atonal string quartet (the Barber is in a lush B-flat minor with an unsettling final chord on the dominant), and it is fascinating to realize that they are largely hunting the same rabbit, a gradually intensifying and ever-more-tightly-packed harmonic texture that suddenly releases after its apex. There are also similarities in their use of rhythmic impulses, Barber’s being more subtle in using off-accents within compound meters like 15/8. Wolff used this piece as a warm-up, as it were, for some of what followed in the Shostakovich, by showing off the Philharmonia’s ability to hold a quiet intensity, which it did admirably. What was less good was his excessively long pause at the searing climax, as if he did not trust Barber to achieve the necessary relief on purely instrumental grounds, which it really does quite well without the unduly theatrical intervention.
The Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor, op. 129, is not the most-often played of cello concertos, nor does it show up that much in general surveys of the composer’s music, though in neither case can one say today that it is woefully neglected. Its reputation has not been the highest of Schumann’s œuvre, and has wobbled even in the last 50 years. Writing in the 1960s, Rey Longyear could say, admiringly but a bit defensively, that “the Cello Concerto is neglected because its contrasts are too subtle, its poetic atmosphere too unrelieved, and its virtuosity too unevident…” Charles Rosen, however in The Romantic Generation (1993), was more pointed: “[W]hen Schumann abandons a repetitive rhythmic pattern, he has nothing coherent on a large scale to replace it…[t]he late Cello Concerto has nothing to compare with the dramatic structure of the earlier Piano Concerto: in its place there is a continuously developing lyricism…” Formally innovative in a manner somewhat like Mendelssohn’s violin concerto by having its three movements conjoined, it is nevertheless a bit hard, with all that developing lyricism, to know when one has moved from one to the next.
None of this would matter if the orchestra and soloist, working with common dedication and purpose, put forward a cogent argument for its lyrical and poetic virtues, as one sometimes gets in performances of the Delius concerto, another highly contemplative work. On this occasion, Wolff did not close the sale. Mr. Hakhnazarian is a supremely gifted young man and appeared quite committed to this work, but his passion wanted to make of it something it is not. He falls, at this age (21) quite understandably, among the hot-blooded performers like DuPré or Rostropovich, rather than the more clinically-inclined such as Casals or Starker. We were treated, therefore, to a high-powered, commanding reading with awesome prestidigitation; Wolff and the orchestra gave him his head, and in fact assumed the deferential position one expects of a traditional early-19th-century bravura concerto. From where we sat, this appeared to be a serious miscalculation. Oh well, live and learn; it certainly did nothing to curb the audience’s enthusiasm or keep them seated during the great ovation that followed. As an encore, Mr. Hakhnazarian tossed off with enormous agility and aplomb a Georgian folk dance—whose full name or composer/arranger we did not catch—entirely in pizzicato with strumming and perfectly crystalline bell-like pizzicato harmonics.
Out of the rubble of World War II and the sclerotic terror of Stalin’s last years, the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 in E minor op. 93 rises as a tale of individual survival, affirmation, and somewhat equivocal triumph. Written following Stalin’s death in 1953, this large-scale narrative picks up where the nerve-shattering Eighth Symphony left off after the intervening coyly sarcastic Ninth had poured cold water on all the freight that a Ninth Symphony is expected to convey. The immense first movement and the grisly, stiletto-sharp scherzo bring us “the story so far” in exquisite agony. However, unlike the outward-looking Seventh, with its depiction of war, possibly on two fronts, and the Eighth, which internalized the impact of war on the composer as a representative citizen, the tragedy of the Tenth was that of the individual—guess which one?—as such, in the oppressive and capricious machinery that made war indifferently on its external enemies and its internal components. The first movement brilliantly unwinds an organic continual development from within the nominal framework of sonata form, starting with the germ of a motif in the lower strings. Shostakovich’s absorption of Mahlerian technique to illuminate the vulgar bestiality of his world achieves here its greatest and most original expression. Wolff made this his labor of love for this concert and shaped the entire experience with a sure hand, extracting perfectly calibrated dynamic contrasts and a relentless forward momentum, and driving the scherzo home with appropriately frenetic brutality. Ellen Pfeifer’s program note disputes the Shostakovich-ex-Volkov characterization of the scherzo as a depiction of Stalin, but we can see it — a bug-eyed monster, a Jabberwock spewing flame and terror. The slow movement takes the narrative to its next level, in which little DSCH pokes up his head (this being the first appearance in Shostakovich’s work of this “signature”) and notices that he is still alive, with a girlfriend, even, memorialized in a notable horn motif (kudos due here to the Philharmonia’s horn section), but although she receives further mention, it is clear that the composer’s greatest wonderment is that he is still, more or less, battered and scarred, himself. The finale, full of that patented sardonic self-mocking and mechanistic celebration by which we know its author’s voice, keeps repeating his own name, saying “I came through, but did I deserve to?”
The Shostakovich was very well played: although the string section, as always, carries the flame, this work places heavy demands on winds and brass, and, in addition to the praise given to the horns as a group, important solos were noticeably well done by principal clarinet Alexis Lanz, flute Pamela Daniels (in the dusky lower range), bassoon Luke Olaf Varland, and oboe Mary Lynch.