The Boston Symphony Orchestra brought its two-season survey of the symphonies of John Harbison to a conclusion this week (we made the January 12th performance) with the premiere of No. 6, which, along with No. 5, the BSO had commissioned. The Harbison premiere came in the middle of a nicely varied program under the baton of David Zinman, whose current and long-standing official affiliation is as Music Director of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich and who, in his longest U.S.-based setting, was the brilliant leader of the Baltimore Symphony, which he essentially put on the map as a significant American orchestra.
Zinman opened the program this week with Weber’s overture to his second big Romantic opera Euryanthe. The music to this opera has always been highly regarded among composers, but little heard because a hideously inept libretto has kept the work off the boards, unlike the occasionally mounted Der Freischütz. The Euryanthe overture, it must be said, also lacks some of the spontaneity of that of Freischütz, but it does have its moments. Weber’s purely instrumental music does not always make the best case for the esteem in which he is held in the German-speaking world, which appreciates his role in bringing German opera out of the Singspiel shadows into the European mainstream. No one performed this service for English opera until the twentieth century. The performance by the BSO under Zinman was, to our ears, nearly flawless. The conductor opened with a brisk, brash, and slightly brusque tempo for the horns, setting up perhaps a too sharp contrast with the love-song second subject, but he brought a fine sense of drama to the whole, with some goosebump-inducing pianissimi and some brilliantly controlled crescendi.
The concerto that closed the first half of the program was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, op. 15, with Norwegian superstar Leif Ove Andsnes. This is Andsnes’s third performance of Beethoven 1 this season, having done it in Pittsburgh and Montreal. We confess a soft spot for the First (yes, we know it’s really the second), which is the sassiest of the five, full of look-Ma-no-hands harmonic gyrations and compositional slyness (in the opening movement the piano doesn’t really play the principal theme until the cadenza and its music in the development has virtually nothing to do with the thematic material). Zinman took care to pare back the BSO orchestral complement to more period-appropriate size, and gave the opening a distinctly Mozartian flavor. The soloist was rather more forward in his approach without, however, wrecking the Classical-era ambience. An irony of this approach is that the program note by biographer Jan Swafford stressed the proto-Romantic elements of this concerto. Somebody must not have gotten the memo.
Of the performances by soloist and orchestra, we were once again deeply impressed by an Apollonian clarity that did nothing to obscure the work’s fundamental impishness. Andsnes employed virtually no rubato and very discreet pedaling. The orchestral playing was in many places stunningly good — a special bouquet to William Hudgins, the clarinetist, whose considerable solo work in the slow movement was tonally gorgeous and smooth as a silk-bottomed baby. Our only quibble had to do with Andsnes’s sometimes rushed answering phrases in the finale. As a point of information, Andsnes used one of Beethoven’s own cadenzas for the first movement, which are not the ones most commonly performed, owing perhaps to their brevity and relative lack of flash.
The Harbison Sixth Symphony is, like the Fifth, at least in part a vocal work. The opening movement is a setting for mezzo-soprano (Paula Murrihy) of James Wright’s “Entering the Temple in Nîmes.” While the use of sung music entered the Fifth Symphony at the direct suggestion of James Levine, Harbison let that idea recur more or less spontaneously for the Sixth (it didn’t work quite that way compositionally: the vocal idea came late in the process and prompted considerable revision of the other three movements to integrate it). The first movement introduces a couple of melodic ideas that recur importantly in later movements, as well as a sound effect: the use of the Hungarian cimbalom (think Kodály’s Háry Janos). As played by Nicholas Tolle, it created an occasionally spooky atmosphere. Its first occurrence, though, in the opening movement, was largely covered on Thursday by the dense contrapuntal web even within the chamber-sized instrumentation. Later appearances, despite a larger ensemble, were more audible (maybe there was a technical glitch in the possible miking of the cimbalom).
Before we attempt any kind of evaluation of the work, we should say that apart from whatever it was that obscured the cimbalom, the performance seemed as sympathetic and engaged in this piece as in anything else in the program. Murrihy sang with beautiful tone and excellent diction (a bit of dramatic stage business: she left stage after her movement). Zinman built force as the first movement proceeded, to the climactic seven lines of hard-driving rain (which the cimbalom was intended to reinforce), building and releasing tension in the slow movement, driving the Bernsteinesque rhythmic vitality of the scherzo, and gliding home (wherever that was) at the end. Zinman has a history with Harbison, and it seemed that his comfort level and enthusiasm infused the orchestra.
On occasions like this one is supposed to make some astute remarks about the success vel non of the new work. Honestly, we don’t know what to say, and suspect it would be fatuous even to try. Our random observations are that, like all Harbison’s work, this was constructed with excruciatingly meticulous care — and maybe too much so. There was plainly a sense of an overarching musical argument, but it wasn’t as immediately grabby a piece as a couple of the other entries in his symphonic œuvre we’ve heard. The scoring was typically thick and, except in the rhythmically charged scherzo (scherzoid might be a better term), may have kept our engagement at bay. The work seems as though repeated hearings might yield more of its juice, so we hope the BSO releases a recording on its site.
The program ended with one of the best performances of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Lustige Streiche we have ever heard. It’s amazing how good Strauss can sound when a virtuoso orchestra plays him. Kudos go to Zinman for his conducting which was un-histrionic, but on top of everything. Kudos also go to the horns, whose deliberately raw opening statement of Till’s theme was a brilliant touch, to the clarinets, to concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, and to anybody else who had a featured part to play. There is a certain subset of the audience, the high-toned intelligentsia (you know who you are), who came to hear the Harbison and, disdaining the proletarian appeal of Strauss, decamped before Eulenspiegel. Fie on them, we say, music for pure visceral fun is an essential part of one’s humanity.