It was alumni reunion weekend at New England Conservatory, so Jordan Hall on October 22 was packed even fuller than usual for the performances of the NEC Symphony Orchestra and Concert Choir, which featured the “Jubilee” movement from G. W. Chadwick’s Symphonic Sketches, the Schicksalslied and Nänie of Brahms, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The balance in programming was noteworthy, despite the fact that all the works played were from the same period. Chadwick and Elgar were close contemporaries, incidentally.
We arrived midway through the pre-concert talk by NECSO Conductor and Assistant Director of Orchestras David Loebel, essaying an appreciation of George Whitefield Chadwick, who became NEC’s director in 1897 and took it from the musical finishing school it had been (per Loebel) to the first-rank conservatory it has been ever since. Indeed, NEC’s current main building, including Jordan Hall, was one fruit of Chadwick’s labors. While it is gratifying to see Chadwick thus honored, and also appreciated in his role as teacher to several generations of America’s finest composers, it might have been even better to have acknowledged Chadwick as one of America’s first world-class composers and, in his day, among the most original thinkers among them, with his distinctively Yankee-American sensibility. We’re afraid that Loebel is still smilingly propagating the slightly dismissive attitude toward America’s earliest generations of professional composers that has inexcusably condemned so much wonderful music to be heard only in faintly condescending revival, rather than in the mainstream repertory where it belongs.
One way in which performing organizations, especially in Boston, could start making amends to our musical ancestors would be to play their works whole. As it was, Loebel teased the audience (while without a doubt pleasing it) with the first movement of the Sketches, written mostly in 1896. (The third movement, of four, was added in 1904 after the other three had already been premiered.) To be sure, “Jubilee” is, or traditionally has been, given as a standalone overture; it is certainly a rousing curtain-raiser, showing off Chadwick’s ebullience, his flashy orchestration, and a jaw-droppingly gorgeous second subject. The movement qualifies as a “sketch” rather than a full-blown symphony first movement by essentially omitting the development section. The NECSO’s performance was solid, and highly affecting in the more tender moments. There was a tendency for melodic lines and finer details to become submerged in the swirling, jangling rush of the work’s main subject.
Swirling rushes were not much in evidence in the next two works on the program, two of Brahms’s great works for chorus and orchestra that are not the German Requiem. It should be remembered that for much of his professional life, Brahms earned his living as a choral conductor; and his works in that medium exhibit a sure sense of how voices blend and stand out, and how the different harmonic effects can best be brought out. At the same time, Brahms the composer was confronted with the age-old dilemma of how to make the words and music play nicely together, especially when, as here, he was setting poetry by two of Germany’s greatest masters, Friedrich Hölderlin (Schicksalslied) and Friedrich Schiller (Nänie). Individual word-setting is not the issue; the problem here is simply that poetic form and musical form are not the same, and while the more freewheeling of his contemporaries might have been perfectly content simply to let the poetic sense dictate the musical construction, Brahms was, at least at this time in his life (Schicksalslied dates from 1871, three years after the Requiem, and Nänie a decade later), deeply concerned with formal constraints of a purely musical nature. He liked rounded forms, and particularly in the case of Schicksalslied, the poetry just didn’t want to go there. The text is in two parts: the first sets up the serenity of the “blessed spirits” who, untouched by fate, “gaze with a clarity unchanging and still.” To this sentiment Brahms adduces music of ethereally calm solemnity, with the one slightly nagging detail of pulsing tympani to hint that things might not rest with this. The second part hurls at these serene overseers the accusation of turbulent humanity, “who suffer, fade and fall blindly from one hour to another.” Needless to say, Brahms here lets loose music of angry vehemence. But Brahms didn’t want to leave it like that; he wanted closure, so he provided an extended orchestral coda to focus again — now with a perhaps more cynical eye — on the beings who bear some passing resemblance to the “druids” of Ives’s Unanswered Question, who “see, hear and know nothing.” The NECSO and Concert Choir (directed by Erica Washburn) were completely in sympathy with Brahms’s aims here: the opening section was properly calm, paced just a bit faster than some horridly lugubrious renditions we’ve heard. The chorus’s entrance was breathtaking, a floating sound that seemed to have no actual beginning. The agitated second part was played to maximum effect. Our only small complaint was that the tympani in the opening section could have been a bit more misterioso.
The Nänie was written in memory of Brahms’s friend, the neoclassical painter Anselm Feuerbach. (Nenia is a classical Roman lamentation for the dead, from the eponymous goddess.) Schiller’s text, full of classical allusions, comments on how even the gods are impotent to arrest inevitable death. “Beauty must die as well,” the poem begins. Maybe Brahms was whistling past the graveyard by taking up that notion, since for it he created one of his most undyingly beautiful melodies. (And, we should note, Feuerbach’s paintings are still hanging in museums all over Europe.)
The narrative of the poem is not as radically bifurcated here as in the Schicksalslied; it ends with the mildly comforting thought that “to be remembered by your beloved in a song of mourning is blessed, because many [are] to the underworld unsung.” To this Brahms returns to the opening music. The setting of this piece musically is quite a bit more contrapuntal than that of Schicksalslied, and it is considered one of Brahms’s most difficult choral works. The NEC forces, however, brought it off with admirable finesse. Particularly noteworthy was the choir’s dynamic control, with a magnificent sudden hush on the words “daß das Schöne vergebt,” without losing anything of the overall musical flow. Loebel kept the orchestral and choral forces in excellent balance.
The program ended with Edward Elgar’s first big hit, his Variations on an Original Theme, op. 36, universally called the Enigma Variations, from 1899. The Chadwick that began the program was from a series of character sketches, and the Elgar that ended it was on multiple levels itself a series of character sketches, constructed on a variation technique known as character variations, a broadly based development of the theme favored by Brahms, notably in his Haydn variations. While the identities of the friends portrayed in the variations have been known from the beginning, Elgar identifies them mostly by initials or nickname, and of the others he made no secret. The enigma that gives the work its title is one he imposed on the whole, saying that there was a larger “theme” that was a “dark saying” that “‘goes’ but is not played.” About this scholars have been arguing for 111 years with no end in sight; nor is there any consensus on whether the overarching theme is musical, literary or religious. The musical variations range from tender to rambunctious; the great slow one at the center of the work, used now on occasions of state, might seem like a peculiar love letter to the composer’s publisher, but Elgar cautioned that this one was not a portrait but a telling of something that happened (further than this the affiant sayeth not). Loebel very lucidly delineated the lines and contours, and the orchestra’s playing was top-notch. We approved especially of Nathan Grant Raderman’s melting clarinet solo in the antepenultimate variation, the “Romanza.”