For the March 22-24 weekend (We attended the performance on March 22) the Boston Symphony brought in one BSO favorite and one BSO newbie, in the persons of violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann and conductor Juraj Valcuha respectively, for a very attractive program of Kodály, Dvorák and Mendelssohn. None of the works is new to the BSO but only Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, has been performed here lately.
Valcuha, 45, is current principal conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI (the Italian radio symphony orchestra, though of course they principally perform live, in Turin). His US conducting gigs have been relatively few: Pittsburgh, LA, Washington. He presents with a youthful bounce and a clear beat, and at his best on Thursday he elicited carefully controlled phrasing and dynamics. Zimmermann, a still-youthful 56, was on hand for one of the least-performed of all the generally-acknowledged “great” Romantic violin concertos, Dvorák’s A minor.
The program began, however, with Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galánta, a kind of tone-poem-cum-suite he wrote to commemorate the Budapest Philharmonic’s 80th anniversary in 1933, an occasion that also brought forth Bartók’s Dance Suite. Interestingly, for a composer who, like Bartók, sought to draw a distinction between the Mágyar and Roma folk traditions, the latter of which was what most people in the 19th and early 20th centuries thought was Hungarian music, Dances of Galánta is based on excerpts from a set of Gypsy dances from the Galánta area published in Vienna around 1800. Each of the tunes he chose is of the type of dance called verbunkos, or “recruiting,” from a bit of military marketing the Emperor used to show how cool military service was. A famous example in classical music is the first movement of Bartók’s Contrasts. Kodály arranged these verbunkos with flashy modern orchestration, updated tonal harmony (much plusher and less strident than Bartók’s) and in a logical sequence that simulates symphonic development rather like J. Strauss Junior’s elaborate waltz sets. Valcuha’s approach tended to favor elegance over power, with lots of appropriate rubato, but he produced some thrilling subito pianissimo phrase endings and overall excellent sculpting of both the larger and smaller musical building blocks. The central syncopated section was full of taut energy in the strings and brilliant climaxes. Kodály’s scoring called for much solo clarinet, with some beautiful but convoluted passagework; for this, principal clarinet William R. Hudgins received a well-deserved call-out.
The Dvorák Violin Concerto in A minor, op. 53, has had a fraught history. Widely admired, albeit often from afa, for its dash and fire as well as for the melodic beauty so characteristic of its composer, it has been, right from the beginning a little off-putting to performers. It is notoriously difficult; it requires a lot of juggling between solo and orchestral forces to get the balance right without loss of expressivity; and its opening movement is worked out rhapsodically, which is a euphemism meaning that structurally it’s a bit of a mess. This put off its dedicatee, Joseph Joachim, who, after giving Dvorák copious advice on technique and orchestration, never himself performed it. These details should be less important for modern performers and audiences, yet like another great Romantic violin concerto, Elgar’s, this one resists warhorse frequency of performance. Dvorák also instructed that the first two movements be run together, a technique that since Mendelssohn did it was a fashionable Romantic fillip — Bruch’s first concerto does the same. In Dvorák’s case, though, this can severely tax a soloist’s stamina. A gladiator like Zimmermann, however, is equal to all such challenges, and he put forward a virtuoso demonstration by turns fiery and sentimental. By and large, Valcuha did good work in suppressing the orchestra when the soloist was on and otherwise balancing the dynamics of all concerned. Zimmermann did have a few moments when his volume couldn’t quite keep up, but these were fortunately few — an indication of what a formidable challenge this work must be to mere mortals. We detected a few ragged moments in the orchestra, especially in the opening, but also some surpassingly fine playing by the horns in the famously infectious, bouncy, and rhythmically complex finale, as well as by the timpanist, Timothy Genis.
At intermission, we were all in high spirits, awaiting the application of all the brilliance and sound judgment we had just heard to Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, op. 56, now, (with a cautious eye out to the SNP) called the “Scottish,” but long known to us troglodytes as the Scotch. Whoever inserted the fatuous footnote in the BSO program note describing the distinction between the adjectives for the people and the whisky as a “rule” rather than a convention should be laughed out of his or her safe editorial anonymity. And why shouldn’t one toast Mendelssohn for this brilliant work with a fine single malt?
As most studious fans of classical music know, No. 3 is really No. 5, but Mendelssohn only authorized publication of Nos. 1, 2 (the Lobgesang) and 3, while the earlier Reformation and Italian symphonies were published posthumously and received numbers 5 and 4, respectively, though they were second and third, respectively, in order of composition. Like most of his symphonies, this one gave Mendelssohn, a fearsomely self-critical artist, a fair amount of angst. Its artistic impetus was coeval with the Hebrides overture in his trip to Scotland in 1829, but gestated for over a dozen years. It is widely thought to be the best of his five numbered symphonies.
Valcuha got off to a no-nonsense opening in the andante introduction, with a dynamic rather louder than the score’s piano and a bit of a raw, ragged edge, with phrasing rather less shapely than he had brought to the Kodály or Dvorák. In the allegro, he interestingly brought out the clarinet line, when it coincided with the strings, more than most performances we have heard — more kudos to Hudgins. Another interpretive detail we liked, this from near the very end of the work, was the fine transition from the main body of the allegro guerriero to the Finale maestoso epilogue (the latter being another of those formal innovations, like the linked movements — used in this symphony as well — and the repositioning of the cadenza in the Violin Concerto, that were much noted in Mendelssohn’s day and taken for granted today).
We don’t do footnotes here at BMInt, so for lack of a better place, we’ll wonder out loud here where that colorful “allegro guerriero” designation comes from, conjuring images of Mel Gibson and his Men in Blue. The 1842 Breitkopf & Härtel first edition of the score marks the movement allegro vivacissimo. The 1877 B&H edition, which is probably what the BSO used for its 1883 first performance, had the claymore-rattling title, but that just pushes the question of where B&H got the idea. Erudite readers, speak!
If I were inclined to talk like a Valley Girl, my overall reaction to the BSO’s performance of the Mendelssohn might be summarized as “so first I was like uh-oh, and then I was like oh no, and then I was like eeeeuw!” Exegesis: that raggedy opening and lack of dynamic subtlety was not the only instance encountered; the tempi were somewhere between brisk and here-come-the-blue-flashing-lights, with concomitant loss of linear detail; there was, it almost goes without saying, no exposition repeat in the first movement. The Scotch snaps (that’s a rhythm, not a cookie) in the scherzo were taken staccato, and they’re not marked that way in the score. It matters, because it robs them of some of their authenticity, and we presume that Mendelssohn wrote it as he heard it. And, while Valcuha was fine in the big climaxes in the slow movement, the bits in between seemed rather perfunctory. The fourth movement’s main section, while the strings were properly tight, was again too fast to permit any subtlety. Finally, the grand maestoso apotheosis, which should ring nobly like church bells through the glens, was so rapidly and brusquely taken that it seemed an arbitrary and artificial appendage. Overall, our impression was that Valcuha doesn’t really like this piece, and had someplace else he needed to be at 10:00 Thursday night. The whole thing seemed not well considered and under-prepared. Bottom line: as the symphony’s dedicatee, HM Victoria R., might have said, we were not amused. Let’s get it better tomorrow, OK?