Yesterday afternoon, Bernard Haitink led the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with Till Fellner joining in on piano, in a concert of Debussy, Mozart, and Beethoven. The program offered a compelling union of music I’d never before heard presented on a single concert.
The program opened with Debussy, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. This prelude, inspired by Mallarmé’s poem, questions the division between dream and reality as a faun pursues, or thinks he pursues, nymphs. I re-read the poem yesterday before the concert: a complex and condensed work, a fascinating poem that is suggestive and full of musical language which inspired Debussy. In 1893, while working on this Prélude, Debussy wrote that music “is a dream from which the veils have been lifted. It’s not even the expression of a feeling, it’s the feeling itself.” Upon first hearing Debussy’s composition, Mallarmé commented, “This music prolongs the emotion of my poem, and sets its scene more vividly than color” (as Marc Mandel quotes in his program note). Haitink and the Boston Symphony brought this work to life in a wonderfully evocative and colorful reading. Elizabeth Rowe captured the languorous opening on flute, quiet and breathy then growing in volume and intensity, perfectly setting up the glissandi in the two harps and the quiet entrance of the horns building to a daybreak clarity. Later Rowe returned to the opening theme, this time played as a half-remembered recall, both wistful and uncertain. The effect was enchanting. The piece as a whole was richly varied in timbre and color – an exciting opening to the program.
Following a brief pause to bring the Steinway grand piano to the stage, the orchestra returned with Till Fellner for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat, K. 482. Written in 1785, this concerto is the first to include a clarinet in the orchestra, a new instrument at the time and one for which Mozart evinced a palpable affection. The opening fanfare makes one think this will be a conventional work in E-flat major, but as the concerto unfolds it is anything but. The Allegro began with a stately reserve, but we quickly heard a range of moods expressed, first by the orchestra then the piano: depth and passion, the lightness of filigree arabesques, the gentleness of a lullaby. This performance brought out the dissonances and passing harmonies which set the stage for post-Classical harmonic innovation and expressed a yearning for something further, something more. Declamatory passages of gravitas in the piano led the orchestra into a greater range of colors. The middle Andante opened darkly passionate and lamenting, the piano initially more reserved than the orchestra. That reserve led to a more dramatic profundity. The structured variations of this movement turn it into a rambling walk through emotion and harmony, leavened by moments of wistfulness and passages almost chipper in character – notably the accompanied duet between flute and bassoon. The declarative re-enactment of that profundity, grief, passion unfulfilled, brought this movement to a close. The finale Allegro opens with a pianissimo piano then quickly grows into the theme of the movement, one which is stately in a sense but more playful. The piano played over the orchestra, but did not dominate. The middle section, Andantino cantabile, was tender and recalled the Andante second movement. The concerto ended on a flourish, as it began, but one freighted with the journey traveled during the course of the work.
Till Fellner gave a wonderfully insightful reading of this work, filled with pathos, a wide range of dynamics, and a colorful palette. The reserve so often associated with Mozart’s music was heard, but was not the only soundscape presented; the result was a deeper and richer presentation of Mozart’s music, restoring the composer’s full and varied humanity to this composition. The orchestra generally kept up with Fellner, but was not as cohesive or as responsive as I would have liked.
Following intermission, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Bernard Haitink returned to the stage for Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68, “Pastoral.” The composer’s name emblazoned on the gold shield atop the proscenium arch of Symphony Hall reminds us this is Beethoven’s temple; Apollo, poets, and orators from Antiquity preside from their niches on high. It is hard not to approach Beethoven with heightened expectations in such a space. The BSO gave a fine reading of this familiar work, perhaps a bit short on the craggy and the shocking (hard to pull off now that the symphony is canonical) but not contemptibly familiar either. To my great surprise for this orchestra and this space, the brass often sounded muddy during the Beethoven; pity, they have some great parts in this symphony. Haitink, conducting from memory, brought out the folkloric elements in the opening Allegro ma non troppo and the playful aspects of the second movement, Andante molto mosso, especially in the second violins and violas – although the violas, seated on the outside at stage left, were hard to hear since their instruments pointed away from the audience). Harmonic modulations were more present than in other readings of this work, and the third movement Allegro began in a more tame or sedate vein than is often heard. The Allegro thunderstorm was indeed stormy, with the first violins sawing away with vigorous gruffness. The real tempestuousness of this fourth movement belonged to the contrabasses, hands and fingers flying and rumbling at the sonic floor for all their worth. The finale, Allegretto, returned to a calm day and concluded on a stately note that brought this program full cycle.