The careers of the two greatest English composers born in the 19th century, Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, did not begin in earnest until they were in early middle age. The works that put them on the musical map — in program rather than chronological order Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis of 1910 and Elgar’s Enigma Variations of 1899 — were the bookends of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s programming for its current series of concerts. We caught the first performance at Sanders Theater on February 24; the program repeats on Saturday the 26th at Jordan Hall, and back at Sanders on Sunday the 27th. In between these career-launching masterpieces was the very last work composed by the eminent but now neglected Karol Szymanowski, namely his Violin Concerto No. 2. This intriguing piece has found a new champion in the Russian-born Ilya Kaler, whom BPO Music Director Benjamin Zander brought in from Chicago, where he teaches at DePaul University.
Vaughan Williams wrote the Tallis Fantasia for a string orchestra subdivided into two orchestral groups — the second orchestra is smaller than the main body and was seated on risers at the rear of the Sanders stage — and a third subgroup comprising the first chair players of the main orchestra who acted as a string quartet and as soloists at various points along the way. This work, occupying a sort of midpoint between variation and developmental techniques, is so familiar now that its strangeness is often overlooked. The Tallis tune is a 16th-century hymn that Vaughan Williams encountered in the course of editing his groundbreaking revision of the Anglican hymnal, and which Zander, in his wonted illustrated oral program notes, had the audience hum, and which, in a lovely surprise gesture, he had an unseen (and un-credited) choir sing before the orchestra began. The tune has several component motifs that Vaughan Williams exploited and a modal harmonic cast that allowed the composer, as the late Michael Steinberg’s program note cited J.A. Fuller Maitland for observing, to create a sonic landscape both old and new — indeed, the emergence of the classic Vaughan Williams sound as the public now knows it.
The performance by the BPO strings was, Zander noted, the first strings-only work this ensemble has done. The reasons lie in the BPO’s origins as a community orchestra, whose strings were largely drawn from amateur ranks, with a still-significant amateur component. It is a sign of how far the BPO has come that Zander could entrust such a fully exposed work to the strings, a trust well placed. The ensemble sound was full, rich, vibrant; everyone was together and completely in tune; there were thrilling pianissimi, excellent portamento, and impeccable phrasing. The first-chair quartet of Joanna Kurkowicz and Rose Drucker, violins, Brenton Caldwell, viola, and Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello, soared and swooped in their ensemble and solo work; Kurkowicz particularly imbued her solos with elegance and sweetness. The Tallis Fantasia is a piece it pays to see in order to hear it properly; the second orchestra can get lost as a separate entity in recordings but came across with perfect cogency here, when in plain view.
The Violin Concerto No. 2, op. 61 of Karol Szymanowski, written in 1932 and premiered in 1933, was the last work Szymanowski wrote before his tuberculosis made further work impossible (he died of it in 1937), and the last work performed by Paul Kochanski, the violinist who inspired, commissioned, co-wrote (i.e., the cadenza) and premiered it, who died of cancer in 1934. Kochanski, a long-time friend of Szymanowski, also commissioned and premiered the composer’s first violin concerto some seventeen years earlier, and, like the second, is in one movement. While the First Concerto came at a time when Szymanowski was enthralled with advanced chromatic harmonies, the Second came at a time when he was simplifying his palette and absorbing elements from the folk music of Poland’s Montagnards. The concerto divides into four identifiable sections (if not movements), with Kochanski’s cadenza as the fulcrum in the middle. The music is variously gentle, haunting, charged, and bumptious.
The concerto was popular at the time of its premiere and, like much of Szymanowski’s music, is kept alive in Poland, while it has receded from earshot elsewhere. There are several recordings extant, usually paired with the First Concerto. However, contrary to Zander’s statement that these BPO performances are the first in Boston, its U.S. premiere was given here in 1934 by Albert Spalding and the BSO under (who else?) Koussevitzky. It is also, pace BZ, not the only violin concerto with a prominent orchestral piano part — the Barber springs immediately to mind.
Be that as it may, the Szymanowski Second Concerto has a powerful advocate in Ilya Kaler, who was a student in Russia of the legendary Leonid Kogan, Zinaida Gilels, and other notables. Kaler’s performance was forthright, immediate, and sometimes unaccountably restrained. In part, this owes to Szymanowski, who did not conceive of the work as a bravura showcase; nor, apparently, did Kochanski, whose cadenza, while effective, left us more admiring than thrilled. It was, however, necessary for Zander to hold the orchestra back in places to keep from drowning out Kaler, whose visible bustle was not always aurally matched. Our acoustician colleagues might comment on Sanders’s acoustic properties, though we have not previously been aware of defects of this nature. Szymanowski’s orchestration, too, sometimes ran on the thick side, and we would encourage Zander to do more to clarify it in future performances.
Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, op. 36, the “Enigma” Variations, propelled its composer from provincial obscurity to national and international fame, an overnight success at age 42. That it is a brilliantly composed work is without doubt — the variation technique Elgar used was an advanced version of the Brahms-Strauss “character” variation, in which the distinction between variation and development is often blurred. The work’s instantaneous success may owe less to this, or its gimmick of having each variation constitute a character portrait of various people (and in once case, a dog) in Elgar’s life than to the perception of a singular Englishness — and, more than that, an Imperial Britishness — in the sound, notably of the great, broad and noble “Nimrod” variation and in the closing peroration. For better and worse, this music put its finger on what the British thought of themselves at that moment in history. As Zander eloquently said in his homily, this music projected a sense of Britain as standing for something noble and elevating in the world. Zander, of course, is English-born, and this sense of purpose neatly meshes with the traditional American outlook. One consequence was the exceptional commitment and clarity with which he directed this piece. As did the Vaughan Williams, the Elgar called forth many individual lights to shine in its performance, and while the stand-ups were numerous during the curtain calls, we will here cite Caldwell and Popper-Keizer, bssoonists John MacGowan and Greg Newton, as well as the sublime clarinet solo of Thomas Hill in variation 13.