The Boston Symphony’s November 10 performance brought together two warhorses by Carl Maria von Weber and P. I. Tchaikovsky, the former of which paradoxically hasn’t been much performed by the BSO lately, with a work long more heard of than heard, the Barber Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, with the estimable Garrick Ohlsson. On the revolving podium this week was Myung-Whun Chung, who has not conducted the BSO for fifteen years, this being only his third series of concerts with the orchestra.
The Weber was the overture to Die Freischütz, the opera that is now widely claimed to be the first German Romantic opera. (There were earlier works that might have an equal claim, including some by Spohr, but we’ll let that pass.) Der Freischütz (the Marksman) got a full staging in Boston not too long ago, a true rarity, but the overture is even by itself one of Weber’s most impressive works, with its evocations of spooky forests, overweening ambition, supernatural chicanery and true love thereby destroyed. Chung’s reading, using a full orchestral complement —period authenticity be damned — got some charming and expressive effects, like the growly soft (though not soft enough) opening. He chose brisk tempi and went for some big, stagy effects. This came, alas, at the expense of clear articulation, especially in the lower strings, and a certain lack of overarching concept, as he telegraphed his punches at nearly every climax.
Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, op. 38, was arguably the high-water mark of the composer’s career, in the sense of revealing him at the apex of his public esteem, earning applause, critical praise, and his second Pulitzer Prize (not counting the two Pulitzer traveling fellowships he won in the 1930s before the prizes were awarded as such). We were present, not at the world premiere the BSO gave in New York in 1962 under Leinsdorf, but at the New York Philharmonic’s first performance the following year, when we high-schoolers lucky enough to have snagged student subscriptions were treated to a panel discussion featuring Barber, the dedicatee pianist John Browning, and, if memory serves, conductor Thomas Schippers. Barber freely admitted he was utterly incapable of playing the piece himself and expressed his awe and astonishment at Browning’s doing so, so brilliantly. So brilliantly, in fact, that Browning truly owned the work for the next forty years. Indeed, in all that time, till the pianist’s death in 2003, only two people ever played this concerto: John Browning and Not John Browning. For this reason, we were brimming with giddy anticipation that a third pianist would perform, no less than the protean Ohlsson, to put an individual stamp on the work that could lead to a true second life for it.
The fact that Barber was once America’s most popular classical composer, who clothed an awesome technical command in a personal brand of hysterical lyrical Romanticism (oh my, how the High Modernists hated Barber!), can obscure the fact that this concerto marked a new direction for him, in which he sought accommodation with the more fragmented sounds and sparse sonorities of 1950s asceticism and the coming storm of 1960s chaos. Thus, in the opening movement, which overall is in G Major, lines break off abruptly, scoring is often chamber-like in alternation with big noisy outbursts, and one can sense — as our seatmate Thursday did —that it just doesn’t hang together. The classic Barber lyricism reasserts itself in the slow movement, and the bang-up throbbing 5/8 rondo finale largely carries itself. For the whole piece to work, though, requires a grand, unified, thoughtful conception.
What transpired Thursday wasn’t even close. Not only was Ohlsson, whose technical prowess was unquestionable and probably superior even to Browning’s, unable to make himself sound much different from the somewhat aloof polish of the latter (where was the great Chopin interpreter in the slow movement?), but there were times when his expressions and bearing — something that cannot go unnoticed in such an imposing physical presence — seemed to convey the wish that this all be over soon. To this difficulty was added Chung’s own FX-oriented direction, rather reminiscent of those elements of the Ozawa years we would most like to forget. To be sure, the quality of the playing by the orchestra musicians was tip-top; with as much solo work as there is for them in this concerto, it had better be. While many solo licks deserve praise, we will here mention Elizabeth Rowe’s dusky solo at the opening of the slow movement (which in fact Barber adapted from an earlier work for flute and orchestra) and, as the usually unsung hero of that movement, oboist John Ferrillo, who frequently carried the melodic ball passed by the flute. The finale, we must admit, left us in our usual funk over how orchestras mangle the principal tune. While the episodes, in slower tempi, were fine, the cracking whip of the ostinato main subject leaves them — now the BSO included —seemingly incapable of counting to five. There is a crucial rest on the second beat, which is inevitably stretched to sound like two, making the saucy 5/8 into a dull 6/8. We lay this charge at Chung’s feet. He should have heard this problem and done more to correct it, even if it means leaning harder on the third beat.
We will, in the interest of full disclosure and the setting of expectations, say right up front that we are not big Tchaikovsky fans. We acknowledge his technical mastery, we proclaim him one of the greatest melodists ever and a brilliant orchestrator to boot. Where we cannot follow is the “too much is never enough” aesthetic, with its attendant bathos. So, with that in mind, our approach to a session in the Tchaiko ward with the Symphony No. 6 in b minor, the Pathétique, was not without discomfiture. Luckily, our attention was sufficiently distracted from the substance of the piece by the particulars of the performance that we can dispense with any further fulminations along aesthetic lines.
What we observed was, first, and most obviously, some brilliant playing. Craig Nordstrom had the unenviable (well, maybe it was enviable) task of taking the bass clarinet to ppppp (or was that pppppp?) in a first movement passage that, it may surprise you, as it always amazes us, to know, was actually written for bassoon, which not only cannot play that softly but sounds too croaky in that register to produce the intended effect. The brass, too, has much to say in this symphony and said it with great integrity and not a bit of, well, brass.
The problems, as we heard them, were, as throughout the program, at the top: Chung passed up many opportunities to squeeze any shiver-inducing pianissimos from the ensemble and lurched from moment to moment without a sense of grand sweep. His tempi, on the other hand, were continually and on the whole commendably brisk, notably so in the 5/4 waltz and even in the finale. The latter, of course is meant to be lugubrious, but without a brilliant sense of slo-mo propulsion can be merely deadly; thus, a faster beat, like powdered sugar, can cover a multitude of sins. Chung achieved a commendable crispness without loss of articulation in the third movement march, which, true to form, awoke some dozers who then applauded as if the piece were over. Overall, though, we saw too many trees and too little forest.