in: Reviews

January 21, 2011

BSO’s Excellent Russian Program Under Maazel

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Lorin Maazel, 80 years old, is one of today’s most masterful and versatile conductors, brilliant when brilliance is called for, and solidly dependable at all times, seldom histrionic, and always precise. His only showoff last night was conducting the entire program from memory, and two of the works he had conducted with the BSO on a comparable concert 50 years ago. The Russian program suited him perfectly and was excellently rendered throughout.

Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 for orchestra was new to me, which is ridiculous, because I already knew Suites 1, 2, and 4 but not 3, and 3 is said to be the most popular. It’s a major discovery. I loved the piece even when it was sometimes too long, too loud, or too orchestrally fussy, but those moments, which one expects from time to time in Tchaikovsky, were rare, and the high points are very high indeed. The opening “Elegy” has wonderfully rich diatonic harmony in G major that made me think of similar passages for G-major strings, like the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, and an Elgar piece whose name I can’t remember at the moment, or even Henry F. Gilbert’s Suite for chamber orchestra of 1927 (there’s an attractive piece by a local composer that’s waiting for local revival — a piece quite possibly influenced by this Tchaikovsky). The “Valse mélancolique” that followed began with a marvel of low-register orchestration, with melody in three unison flutes (repeated later in violins, still later in violins and flutes in octaves). I think Ravel thought of this score when writing the mysterious beginning of La valse. Then there was a “Presto” Scherzo with treacherous offbeat pizzicati, perfectly executed by the imperturbable Boston Symphony strings; this Scherzo with its alternating bursts of winds and strings is a harbinger of the March in Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, is one of his greatest achievements. The fourth movement of the Suite, a “Theme and Variations,” is something I’ll have to study closely. Like Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra, this was a very assorted set with different meters, widely different textures, and different styles. There was one elaborately canonic variation (Var. 5) for strings doubled at unison by winds, others (Vars. 7 and 8) with modal harmony reminiscent of the Orthodox church, another with a comical cadenza for solo violin (Var. 10), and a final joyfully noisy polonaise.

A parenthetical note: I’ve been looking closely at Frank Epstein’s Cymbalisms: A Complete Guide for the Orchestral Cymbal Player (2007) which carefully describes some twenty-two different techniques for playing these traditional instruments. Last night he was able to demonstrate at least eight of these in person, with two pairs of hand cymbals and suspended cymbal with soft mallets. In the Trio section of the Tchaikovsky Scherzo the pianissimo sizzle stroke was fascinating throughout numerous repetitions. After I had seen the book, watching the techniques in action was like experiencing a master class.

Stravinsky’s opera The Nightingale, on Hans Christian Andersen’s story about the Chinese emperor, has a split personality: its first act was completed in 1909, before Firebird, and Acts II and III written in 1914, after The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s style and technique underwent the most drastic imaginable changes during the intervening five years. On top of that, The Nightingale puts three acts into just 45 minutes, with elaborate sets and costumes, which makes it an expensive production under any circumstances, and thus seldom performed. The Song of the Nightingale, on the other hand, is a so-called “symphonic poem” arranged in 1917 for a slightly smaller orchestra and made up entirely of material from the last two acts of the opera. It is the only large-scale work of Stravinsky that essentially expands his chromatic harmonic language beyond that of The Rite of Spring until he took up serial techniques in the 1950s. It might very well have been this piece, and a smaller set of Japanese Lyrics for voice and chamber ensemble (1913) that caused Stravinsky’s friend Debussy to write, to another friend, “Stravinsky is leaning dangerously close to Schoenberg.”

The Boston Symphony performs The Song of the Nightingale approximately once every twenty-five years, and this was the first time I had ever heard this vivid work live, though still remembering the unbeatable recording by the Chicago Symphony with Fritz Reiner from my college days. There’s nothing symphonic about it; it’s really a series of short episodes, with the Nightingale’s coloratura soprano soli replaced by flute (admirably performed by Elizabeth Rowe), and the Fisherman’s song by a solo trumpet. In between are a number of orchestral recitatives and Chinese passages (including a March in D-sharp major and minor at the same time), represented by pentatonic (black-key) harmony rendered rich and exquisitely pungent by the addition of clusters and polychords. There is wonderful orchestral color throughout; one of my favorite textures has pentatonic scales in flute and two clarinets, with solo piano arpeggiating over and under them, and the whole supported from below by a low trumpet playing a different pentatonic scale.

The program ended with Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy for large orchestra, composed in 1908. Scriabin, still the outstanding musical mystic, remains an enigmatic composer even after a century, and no more so than in his big orchestral works. These are overflowing in imaginative harmony and color, but like Richard Strauss’s slightly earlier works that they sometimes resemble, they lack real formal contrast; they are always big, and they don’t breathe. Stravinsky, who took pains to avoid acknowledging his considerable debt to Scriabin’s harmonic language in works like Fireworks and Firebird, referred to Poem of Ecstasy as a “severe case of musical emphysema” — but then, he disliked Scriabin personally as well. Scriabin was, by all testimony, an extraordinary pianist; he can be forgiven for winning only the second prize at the Moscow Conservatory in 1892 when Rachmaninoff won first prize. His earliest works are very close to Chopin in style; his last works display a visionary Russian kind of atonality that is utterly original for its time, and even Stravinsky admitted that the world lost much when Scriabin died prematurely in 1915 — like Berg twenty years later, he was chopped down by a septicemia that today might have been easily treatable with penicillin.

Harlow Robinson’s program notes cite a few lines from a long prose poem that Scriabin wrote in 1904 as a philosophical (it is dangerous to use this word in connection with Scriabin) preamble to Poem of Ecstasy, but I don’t recommend the text, whose humidly erotic message seems only embarrassingly sentimental today. As for the music itself, it is full of contrasting bombast, subtlety, and perfume all at once, like an enormous meal with too many courses; but it has a fascinating harmonic language, and undeniable power in its massed sound. It was good to hear it; I had heard it four years ago in New York, directed by Muti, and it made a big impact that I’m sure can never be captured on recordings. Poem of Ecstasy is too long, but it certainly has its moments.

Hats off to Lorin Maazel for his fearless memory and unruffled control. The orchestra gave him all they had, and it was the best.

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.

7 Comments

  1. The soli for violin, flute, and trumpet were very impressively played.

    Mr. DeVoto found the Scriabin too long.I won’t argue, but I thought that “The Song of the Nightingale” had gone long enough several minutes before Stravinsky actually stopped it.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 22, 2011 at 1:40 am

  2. Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 is one of those pieces of music that I can’t wait when it will be over. It is music for sake of itself, music about nothing. It has some melodies and it has some good orchestration but it has no mining all together and it is tedious like hell. It is in way painful to listen…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 22, 2011 at 10:34 pm

  3. As I heard on last night’s (excellent!) broadcast on the much-criticized 99.5 All-Classical WCRB, Mr. Maazel pulled, stretched, and tweaked the Tchaikovsky too much for my taste, creating a caricature of this wonderful score. Michael Tilson Thomas had the full measure of this music with a much truer and thrilling non-interventionist interpretation many years ago at Tanglewood, a concert that haunts the memory to this day. Maazel redeemed himself later with excellent Stravinsky and Scriabin interpertations, each truer to its composer’s intentions than the earlier Tchaikovsky. The Stravinsky did indeed rival Reiner’s superb recording, and the Scriabin was appropriately caressed and excited, leading to a monumental final cadence. Throughout the evening, the BSO’s playing was of the highest caliber. I’m really looking forward to hearing this music “live” at Tuesday’s concert in Symphony Hall.

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — January 23, 2011 at 12:48 pm

  4. Tuesday evening’s BSO concert of this intriguing program was superb. Mr. Maazel thankfully moderated some of his “taffy-pulling” in the Tchaikovsky, which helped the music’s continuity immensely. The Stravinsky was flawless, beautifully played – a wonder. Was that Assistant Principal Trumpet Thomas Siders playing the meltingly beautiful solos? Couldn’t quite see from where I was seated. The Scriabin was a wholly appropriate tidal wave. To hear this huge piece “live” in Symphony Hall’s superb acoustics is an experience not soon forgotten. Thomas Rolfs again triumphed as the absolutely brilliant trumpet soloist. But really, the entire orchestra shined throughout the evening. Mr. Maazel, betraying not one whit of weakness, was fully in charge of everything, and conducted these three very demanding scores from memory – fearlessly, as Mark DeVoto wrote in his review above. The players of the orchestra, emphatically treading their feet, demanded Maazel return for a final curtain call, even as the audience’s applause began to fade. Still full of energy, he actually jogged back on stage to accept their accolades. I, for one, will welcome his return to the BSO, for he surely must be invited back on the strength of his success with these concerts.

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — January 26, 2011 at 9:23 am

  5. Attending Tuesday’s BSO concert..I second Mr. Ehrlich’s view… While I adore most of Tchaikovsky, Suite #3 is,in my perhaps subjective opinion, a dreadful piece and seems longer than Mahler’s third!!
    The orchestral playing was perfect throughout…. I also look forward to Maazel’s return…he’s ageless!

    Comment by Ed Burke — January 27, 2011 at 10:06 pm

  6. Having attended this concert, it is surprising to me that no there is no mention of soloists in this review. In fact, there wasn’t much said at all about the beautiful playing that went on in Symphony Hall. This review, providing mostly historical background, could have been written for any performance.

    Comment by Ben Willis — January 28, 2011 at 2:15 pm

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