in: Reviews

November 7, 2010

Frühbeck de Burgos Brings de Falla Rarity to BSO

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Esteemed Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos once again brought with him to the Boston Symphony Orchestra music by a countryman; but unlike his recent programming, this music was largely unknown to orchestra and audience alike. For the last twenty years of his life, Manuel de Falla labored over what he envisioned to be his magnum opus: a cantata or oratorio that would recount the tale of the lost continent of Atlantis. When the composer died in 1946, the music was unfinished. Falla’s close associate, a disciple named Ernesto Halffter (1905-1989), attempted to finish the sprawling composition from the composer’s sketches with what appears to be modest success, and he premiered his version of the sketches in Barcelona in 1961. Further revisions resulted in another Halffter version in 1976. Frühbeck de Burgos has fashioned his own suite of excerpts from much of the music de Falla had actually completed – “…the most beautiful and important passages,” says the conductor. It was this some thirty-eight minutes of music that was presented in Boston this past week, and will be heard one more time in Symphony Hall this Tuesday, November 9. Anyone with an interest in de Falla’s music ought to hear this music, though the music will not sound much like anything one may have heard before by this quintessential Spanish composer. Why might this be so?

In his excellent program note, Hugh Macdonald writes: “Without the Spanish idioms which play so important a part in Falla’s other works, the style recalls the austere and dignified manner of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms or the choral works of Honegger and Milhaud.” This is a completely accurate statement. If I were to have heard this music and not known it were by Manuel de Falla, I would not have guessed the composer. The references Macdonald makes to Stravinsky and Honegger are dead-on. Much of the astringent and pungent dissonance that is part of Honegger’s and Stravinsky’s compositional vocabulary is quite apparent throughout, though there is also an occasional and particularly telling sweetness that somewhat offsets the more drier discourse. And there isn’t much more than a hint here and there of de Falla’s earlier “Spanish” music. Use of percussion, and in particular the large tubular chimes, are all that hearkened my ear back to, say, El Amor Brujo or perhaps Nights in the Gardens of Spain. But that was just about all. Having said this, was this “un-Spanish” music by de Falla successful and memorable?

Yes, and no, I’d have to say. I found the entire suite fascinating to hear, but I also found parts of it more emotionally moving than others. And I can now more fully appreciate the challenge faced by the true believers in this composer’s music in general and this score in particular: how best to present the essence of de Falla’s unfinished Atlàntida? Even in its truncated form, Frühbeck de Burgos’s suite of excerpts has its musical ups and downs. I can appreciate why he decided to include certain moments of the score – his love of de Falla is deep and loyal, and to omit anything “worthy” must have been hard for him. Of what’s “there,” to be sure, it is interesting indeed, but, sorry to say, not all of it is on the elevated plain that the better parts of the music inhabit.

The suite is divided into a prologue and three parts, and it presents a tangled web indeed. The vocal portions of the music are written in Catalan and derive from an epic poem by Jacint Verdaguer  “whose desire . . . to boost the revival of Catalan culture equaled his sense of a glorious Spanish past and his Catholic piety,” Macdonald writes. In this poem one reads of the classic myths of Hercules, his ill-fated love of Pyrene the Queen of the Pyrenees, the Garden of Hesperides, a shipwreck from which the future Christopher Columbus survives, Queen Isabella’s dream in which she envisions a dove (colombe) and a bejeweled ring (the Indies), and ultimately the triumph of the Christian Church. To put it mildly, this is quite a rich brew, and it is not surprising that due to its depth and breadth, de Falla was surely challenged to write a score that could possibly contain so disparate a stew of ideas.

Since a concert reviewer’s goal is to assess a performance and not lecture, I would advise any reader who wishes to learn more about the impetus of this music to visit the BSO’s website here, where the reader will find an informative podcast written by Richard Dyer that I urge a listen-to. Now, as for what was performed…

I attended the Saturday evening November 6 performance, before which the BSO had given two prior concerts and an open rehearsal, so the performers were clearly on top of their material.  It is always a pleasure to hear a concert under Maestro Frühbeck de Burgos’s direction. His direction is always completely clear to his players, and his “old-world” bearing and thorough knowledge of the music at hand commands their complete respect and attention. And, given this conductor’s total immersion in Spanish culture and his complete understanding of all of de Falla’s music, he is clearly the right man to bring this unusual score to life for us. In large, he succeeded.

The Prologue began with orchestra, chorus, and narrator and a sense of monumentality, quite dissonant and impressive, abounding with deep tam-tam strokes – music appropriate to the vision of a vast submerged continent. Its style was of vertical and undifferentiated counterpoint, columnar and marmoreal. The chorus sang in Catalan from memory, and its mighty exclamations were interspersed with the tale-telling of the narrator, baritone Philip Cutlip, singing from his score, and a child, touchingly sung from memory by boy soprano Ryan Williams, whom Frühbeck de Burgos had employed in his Elijah performances here last season. A solo from the back row of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was confidently sung by member Felix M. Caraballo. This broad and impressive introduction was to be one of the more memorable musical moments of the score.

The aria of Pyrene that followed was regally and soulfully sung by the contralto Nathalie Stutzmann, whose rich mahogany timbre was to inform elegantly all she sang this evening. And, the ensuing “Hymn to Barcelona,” the city Hercules was to establish on Spain’s coast was, in the hands of Frühbeck de Burgos and the impressively powerful TFC, defiant, declarative and triumphant. The “Llegada de Alcides a Gades heard next was charming, though overwhelmed by its neighbors.

The true gem of this suite was the section drawn from Part III of the larger work, an excerpt entitled Isabella’s Dream.” Stutzmann, here embodying A Lady of the Court, tells that Queen Isabella had a dream while inside the Alhambra. A little page, sung by Williams, further informs us that she held her head in her hands as she related her dream to Ferdinand. This was accompanied by the most ravishing and rich harmonies heard thusfar, elevated by elegant harp arpeggios beautifully stroked by the BSO’s new Principal Harp Jessica Zhou. Then it was time for soprano soloist Alexandra Coku to take the stage and sing Isabella recounting her dream. This Coku did with great beauty of voice, gracious stage presence, and dramatic aplomb. She seemed very much at home with this aria of an ecstatic vision, with Frühbeck de Burgos and the BSO truly simpatico accompanists. Here at last one began to recognize some of de Falla’s most characteristic gifts of orchestration, melody and harmony. The music and Coku’s performance were, for me, the most memorable music of the Suite, approached only by the following music for chorus and orchestra entitled La Nit Suprema – The Supreme Night. This began with a rich introduction ravishingly played by the BSO’s violas, and followed by music that was very different from what we had heard earlier. We were finally favored with a bit of imitative counterpoint played on muted strings by the entire string section, and this somewhat consoling music resulted in a very atmospheric and valedictory finale of great beauty and closure.

So, what ultimately can a listener make of Atlàntida? It was a rare privilege to hear virtually unknown music by a master composer so elegantly excerpted and presented. I would hope to hear the aria “Isabella’s Dream” again. And I feel fortunate to have been shown the outlines of what is surely an important work in the oeuvre of Manuel de Falla, with maestro Frühbeck de Burgos as a most informative and illuminating guide. It is concerts such as this one — challenging, unusual, something new to hear for a change — for which BSO patrons must surely be grateful.

The concert’s second half was occupied by a favorite “chestnut,” the Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73 by Johannes Brahms. All of the Frühbeck de Burgos felicities were on display: sensitive, structure-revealing yet non-interventionist conducting, carefully considered, never overdone rubati at phrase endings, elegant phrasing of the famous ‘cello theme in the first movement, tactful pointing of the instrumental lines’ inner voices, very sensitive accompaniment to solos, particularly Richard Sebring’s horn in the first movement, rich, rounded, soft and generous ensemble sound, a hands-off and elegant approach to music-making — all these were evident. The finale, often driven, was given room to breathe, and though its initial fires were banked, they then were slowly encouraged to glow and finally blaze forth at the arrival of the movement’s coda. Throughout the symphony the well-parsed and thoughtful tuba playing by the orchestra’s Mike Roylance was a pleasure to hear and feel.

Note: This concert will be repeated Tuesday, November 9, at Symphony Hall.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 29 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

2 Comments

  1. Alas, I’m not free Tuesday evening to go for a second hearing. I don’t disagree with anything Mr. Ehrlich says, but my “get acquainted” hearing of the Suite from Atlàntida on Thursday evening didn’t convince me that this is music which needs to be heard regularly. Enlarging on what I said about the Doctor Atomic Symphony, it would be good if there were a system in place to give the audiences a second hearing of works that are new to the BSO, since few have the accessibility of the works of 200 hundred or more years ago.

    Brahms’s Second Symphony isn’t the worst thing he ever wrote, IMO. But however well conducted and played, it’s still Brahms and not the Serenade No. 2.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 8, 2010 at 2:35 pm

  2. Concertgoers should look forward to an evening with Fruhbeck de Burgos conducting Manuel de Falla. Yet expectations can overreach. They did last Tuesday night, when the noted maestro led the BSO in a suite from Manuel de Falla’s ultimate opus, Atlantida.

    First off, any performance of Falla’s unfinished beast is an rare event. It’s seldom done and it’s sparsely recorded. (This was Boston’s first performance; the US’s premiere was New York, 1962.) Amazon sells two versions, the live Schippers and one on Auvidis Valois, truncated but with fine soloists. Atlantida gave its composer a lot of problems. Falla pupil Ernesto Halffter, faced with pulling together 300 folios of sketches and variably-finished segments of a work that represented the composer’s attempts in his final 20 years to celebrate an emergent Christian Spain through the legend of a submerged city rising from the sea to a New World, did his best to shape the material into the prologue and three parts the master had conceived, actually getting it performed in Barcelona (a city celebrated in the Catalan epic poem from which Falla derived his work) in 1961. Other versions followed, including a later one by Halffter. Fruhbeck made up his own suite of “the most beautiful and important passages” for his BSO concert. It made for a viable 35-minute first-half of an evening. But, the voyage was not smooth sailing.

    Vaguely disappointed in such choppy seas and not fully sure why, I dusted off my complete Atlantida CD, Fruhbeck leading the Spanish National O&C, Madrid, 1977 (EMI Matrix two-fer), and the reason shone brilliantly clear. De Falla may not have succeeded in taming his formidable beast, biting off more than he could chew (like Washington Allston’s intractably unfinished Belshazzar’s Feast) but he’d worked long enough on it to get quite beyond an unassimilated hodge-podge to something pretty close to monumental. (Opinions surely vary on this point; this is mine.)

    Atlantida asks much of audiences. First, the rambling story spans immense time and space, not all of it smoothly traversed, ancient myths enveloped by the blaze of the historic expansion of Spain in the New World, the rise of Christianity in Spain (Isabella has a wonderful “dream” aria, perhaps the best music), and a final peroration for the glory of God, with Hercules, Columbus, the seven Pleiades, and three-headed Geryon tossed into the soup. Stir in an inevitable dearth of narrative and musical continuity, spread over a good hour-and-three-quarters (my recording spans 107 minutes), sung in Catalan (a dialect, Falla’s own, that he wanted to promote), music nearly devoid of the composer’s fingerprints, dull homophonic choral writing (except, notably, for some vividly imaginative spots), and you’ve got something far more unmanageable than an evening with Appalachia or Elijah.

    Maybe eviscerating Atlantida is the only way we’re going to hear it in concert. First we got the entire Prologue, and what glorious Whitman-esque music this is! “Do you see the sea that embraces the world from pole to pole? Giants fought, cities flourished. Now walruses gather in marble palaces”. While accepting Fruhbeck’s careful excisions from Parts I and III, sections left in relatively good order on the composer’s death in 1946, I must say the conductor massacred Part II, the one section that was left in most disarray by the composer, requiring Halffter more time and effort to set right than anything else in the work (work? – oratorio, cantata, opera; it was actually staged in Milan in 1962). But Halffter was a respected, and respecting, servant, which I’ve gleaned from listening to the EMI recording’s complete Part II, a section Fruhbeck all but ignores, but which seduces with heady scents like “rows of cinnamon and citron trees bending under the weight of their early fruit”.

    The highlight among the four soloists was soprano Alexandra Coku’s Isabella, with Nathalie Stutzman, Philip Cutlip, and boy soprano Ryan Williams also did well. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang as usual from memory, and in Catalan no less. Fruhbeck’s conducting was authoritative and often inspired.

    Plumbing the full waters of Atlantida in concert proved too much to expect. For such a voyage, we must set sail from home.

    Brahms Second Symphony after the intermission was curiously flat, strong in spots but mostly forgettable. Rhetorical gestures were unconvincing, tempo shifts made no sense, and the orchestral tone, especially in higher strings, was scrawny, un-burnished. The horns earned, in their flawless exposure, the performance’s only honor.

    Comment by Henry Hoover — November 15, 2010 at 5:40 pm

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