In the scramble to find substitute conductors for James Levine’s suddenly canceled appearances, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for this week’s series, brought in Roberto Abbado, who has visited several times before. He has an assured and direct style on the podium, often restrained and controlled, but just as often flailing and overenthusiastic. We saw quite a bit of both on Thursday night, March 11.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 93 in D Major opened the program. This wonderfully melodious work was composed in England in 1791, the first of the six symphonies he wrote for Johann Peter Salomon’s London concerts. Haydn’s orchestra did not yet include clarinets, but otherwise, with paired woodwinds, horns, trumpets and timpani with strings, was of the size used in his “Paris” symphonies of five years earlier. Abbado paid close attention to dynamics, especially in the first movement, where the piano phrases came out more as ppp, and that may have resulted from an effort to subdue the unusually large string complement (10-10-8-8-3, probably too big for this style, even in Symphony Hall). Abbado shaped the melodic phrasing with elegance, shifting easily between beating full measures in 1 and quarter-notes in 3.
He was right to start the slow movement, which begins with a solo string quartet, with the left hand alone, reserving his stick effectively for the tutti which followed. Some writers have suggested that this slow movement is in theme-and-variation form, but I don’t see it that way; shorter than a typical variation form, it’s really an abbreviated rondo, in which the returning main theme includes a varied accompaniment. What everyone remembers about this movement is the unashamedly comic ending, with its expectant short pianissimo gestures between upper winds and strings, and abrupt fortissimo bassoon solo; never was an authentic cadence more rudely prepared by a subdominant.
The minuet and Presto finale were clearly articulated and well received. I heard, too, where Schubert might have got some inspiration for the minuet of his own Fourth Symphony, composed in 1816, even though Mozart was his more usual model.
Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto is his last completed work — almost completed, that is, except for the final seventeen bars for which the orchestration had been sketched the day before the composer went into the hospital for the last time in September 1945. This cheerful, abundantly diatonic work has a distinct folk-music flavor, with modal harmony that reminds one of Bartók’s own Rumanian Folk Dances. In terms of piano sound, it is less craggy and brittle than the two heavy-hitters that preceded it; Bartók had performed the earlier concerti in Europe before he fled to the United States, and he had in mind that his wife Ditta would be able to perform the Third Concerto after his death. It was a pleasure to hear Peter Serkin play this work in Boston, forty-four years after recording it (RCA Stereo LSC-2929) — when he was twenty! —with the Chicago Symphony under Ozawa.
The characteristic passagework in this concerto, especially in the first and third movements, features the piano with the two hands in parallel, doubling each other in octaves, thirds, sixths, even parallel seconds, and combinations of these; such writing makes the piano a melodic instrument, and its contribution to the counterpoint results from dialogue with the orchestra rather than from its own internal texture.
The string warble in the opening measures of the first movement, just before the piano entrance, is like the beginning of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and the same figure reappears in the “Out of Doors” music in the second movement, but played by the piano. That episode separates the chorale-like outer sections of the movement, the chorale in the piano at the beginning, and in the winds at the end. The boisterously rhythmic passage for the piano at the start of the third movement will remind some of the similar bouncing at the beginning of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. It soon comes to an insistent cadence on E echoed by an equally insistent timpani solo. This is followed by a fugato — unusual for Bartók — first in the piano and then taken up by the strings. As the movement develops, there is more bravura, just enough for a bright, octave-filled finish.
The concert concluded with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I was disappointed by the performance overall. Everything was too hurried. Abbado pushed the orchestra considerably beyond what ought to be more natural tempi for the piece, especially in the first movement and the finale, and opportunities were repeatedly missed to project the high drama that this great and path-breaking work so often offers. Too often, the high velocity made for ragged playing. Dynamics were regularly exaggerated; the horns in the third movement should be ff, and the point doesn’t need to be made fff. The transition from the scherzo to the finale is one of the most extraordinary expectant moments in the history of music, and there is surely no need to rush it; still less is there a need to begin the Allegro that follows at such breakneck speed that the strings have to fight to articulate their sixteenth notes. The Recapitulation in the finale went even faster than the Exposition! (Nevertheless the Presto Coda had a tempo that seemed just right.) Notwithstanding this carping, I found some fine points to admire. In the finale, Beethoven doesn’t mark a transition from ff to p at the beginning of the Development, but he ought to have, and Abbado wisely and skillfully directed a sudden moderate decrescendo that worked nicely. The dynamics in the slow movement were good, too, even if the Andante con moto was more like an Allegretto; this is a piece in which the song-like melody needs to breathe. There are still lessons to be learned from old Klemperer: it’s good to take time to smell the flowers.