in: Reviews

March 11, 2011

Serkin Shines, Abbado a Mixed Bag at BSO

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Conductor Roberto Abbado with Peter Serkin (Michael J. Lutch photo)

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.

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.

6 Comments

  1. I had been tothe rehearsal and was looking forward to the concert from my favorite seat last night.
    My friends enjoyed it. I thought the Haydn was heavy handed; loud soft loud soft loud soft and heavy.

    I don’t know the Bartok, I enjoyed it.

    I couldn’t believe the tempo of the Beethoven! How could anyone play that fast and not be ragged. The beautiful first movement oboe solo seemed to be taken at a good tempo; I could take a breath, and I thought Abbado might take the hint and continue, but no. Jimmy Levine has shown us the magic over and over again in these old “war-horse,” showing us things we had never heard before.

    A Shame. Our BSO is so wonderful, They deserve better.

    Comment by Leslie Miller — March 11, 2011 at 6:50 pm

  2. RE: Friday evening BSO concert.

    I had forotten just how mediocre Roberto Abbado’s conducting is in every sense of the word: bland, uninspired and devoid of any feeling for music. Gee, even Robertson looks good compared to Abbado!The orchestral sound for both the Haydn and the Bartok was virtually the same! The orchestra seemed on auto-pilot.

    What a brilliant artist Peter Serkin has been over the past 40 years I’ve heard him play. There is always commitment, devine interpretation and sublime phrasing as well as flawless technique. In the second movement of the Bartok # 3 Serkin’s playing was breathtakingly beautiful….heart-stopping…. this alone was worth attending… the finale, due to Abbado’s ineptitude made it difficult to fully appreciate the true genius of Serkin’s playing.

    I can only imagine what a disaster the Beethoven was! The thoughts of putting up with hearing one more note under Abbado’s direction caused my swift departure at intermission.

    Comment by Ed Burke — March 11, 2011 at 11:17 pm

  3. Very interesting: both the Globe’s reviewer and Dr. DeVoto, as well as Leslie Miller found the tempi in the Beethoven too fast. There were only two points at which I noticed them. One was, of course, at the end as I anticipated and listened to the accelerando. The other was at a point in one of the middle movements where I thought that the period performance people often take the passage faster, and I appreciated the slower tempo. Thinking about it between the previous sentence and this one, I must admit that in the good old days, I heard the fourth movement begin much more ponderously than Maestro Abbado took it.

    At several points I heard detail that I don’t usually hear — instruments playing a figure that I haven’t noticed before. Maybe it had to do with the location of my seat, but it could also be how Maestro Abbado controlled the dynamics. And speaking of dynamics, I don’t recall noticing swelling of volume on briefly held notes in the strings to the extent I heard it on Thursday. It is things of this sort that make this a memorable performance for me.

    The Haydn didn’t seem really spectacular, but it was pleasant to listen to.

    And the Bartók! Unlike some commenters, I didn’t care for last weeks violin concerto — no problem with Christian Tetzlaff or the orchestra, I just didn’t like the music. But this weeks piano concerto was beautiful. It was great to be able to see Peter Serkin’s fingers moving over the keys, and the music itself was actually fun to listen to

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 12, 2011 at 2:12 am

  4. I almost forgot to mention that I noticed much more “flailing and overenthusiastic” gestures from Maestro Abbado than “restrained and controlled.” It occurred to me at one point that the expansive motions and the cueing of sections or individuals were more suited to a high school band than a first rate orchestra.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 12, 2011 at 11:34 am

  5. Hm, BSO showed up a mediocre play of Beethoven Fifth? It does not sound like breaking news, where you have heard BSO did play the Fifth interestingly? I did not hear the Fifth this week, it will be today over FM and I do know what exactly was wrong. However it all brings another point that is worth to mention. Is it possible that BSO consciously or subconsciously is voting for conductors? Does BSO players afraid that the inept BSO Administration would appoint to lead BSO “any” conductor who suddenly demonstrate a good week? It would be interesting with who BSO will choose to play well… I think we are about to hear a lot of dreadful performances coming…

    The optimistic Cat

    Comment by Romy The Cat — March 12, 2011 at 2:17 pm

  6. About that Roberto Abbado and the Fifth, I do not know if it was different then Thursday and Friday but what was on Saturday I did like. Not it was not the best Fifth I heard but it was much more interesting in my views then those recent Beethovens that BSO played under Levine and Frühbeck de Burgos.

    I sat to listen the WCRB broadcast Saturday. The first bars of Haydn’s Symphony made me want to chew cotton – it was remarkably degusting. I was sitting there for a few minutes and then felt that abused too much and I walked away. When I got home back the radio was on and BSO was about to proceed with the Fifth. I was listening the Ron della Chiesa’s signature comment about the “brisk walk” and the opening of Fifth. I was superbly “not there” and I went away to cook a late supper. In time I went back to the room where BSO was crashing through the very last movement of the symphony and was attracted by how enthusiastic and exiting the play was.

    As a concert was over a phone ringed. It was a local friend of mine who asked if I heard the broadcast. I said that I missed it and he said that it was great, almost “Zanderish like”. The BSO to play Zanderish like? That shall be something!!!

    This morning I sat to listen what BSO showed last night. First of all I did figured out why BSO sound gave give that instant revolting feeling – WCRB broadcasted with inverted channels, with first violins on the right and orchestra sitting upside down. That was easy to fix. As I did it a lot of things did make sense. Even the fast Abbado’s tempo did make sense. When I read criticism here about tempo I thought that Roberto Abbado is some kind of Chamber Orchestra conductor that did not “get” the size of Symphony Hall. As I heard how BSO played I felt that the Abbado’s play tempo-wise was VERY smart. The more conventional, slower tempo would imply longer notes decay. However BSO does not have that blossoming most, glory and sophistication of harmonics as some European orchestras do. BSO essentially has a relatively dry sound, so Abbado just transacted all that harmonic unfortunately-monophonic tail by playing faster and not letting the harmonic tail to fizz itself. As far as I concern it was a very smart move and what BSO did in context of that tempo was very right. There were some interesting phrase here and there and the whole Fifth in my view was very decent.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — March 13, 2011 at 11:52 am

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