in: Reviews

April 28, 2012

Versions of Pastoral Under Beethoven’s Shield


Bernard Haitink and Till Fellner (Stu-Rosner photo)

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.

This concert will be repeated tonight at 8 pm.

See BMInt’s recent interview with Till Fellner here.

Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.


  1. I was at the same concert that Cashman Prince has reviewed (Friday afternoon), and have some additional comments; we should note that it was a full house, a welcome change from recent Fridays. Whether it was the program and a well beloved conductor or the return of the snowbirds is tough to ascertain. To me this is an indication that the B of T must hurry up it’s search for a permanent music director. 

    The Debussy was delicate and exquisitely played; but I have imprinted on my right brain the wonderful reedy and sensual flute playing of Doriot Dwyer and the excitement of Le Beau Charles. But it was a wonderful performance. In fact, Elizabeth Rowe was a star in all the pieces: in the third movement of the Pastoral, and in the dazzling passages of the Mozart.
    The orchestra, conductor and Fellner seemed as one in the interesting #22 by Mozart. Fellner’s solo cadenza in the third movement was by Hummel,  a technical feat, but it seemed out of place in the limpid Mozart. 

    The Beethoven with Haitink brought out many inner voices and in my mind emphasized the brashness and roughness of the brass section, probably exactly what Haitink had in mind. It brought a sense of freshness to a piece we all know too well. 

    And the orchestra and audience gave Haitink a well deserved ovation at the conclusion. May we have more concerts like this one; and may the 83 year old go on for many more productive years!

    Comment by Rob — April 28, 2012 at 4:33 pm

  2. We sat orchestra right, and enjoyed the sound of the basses and cellos, not only their harmonic underpinning, but the interesting and important figuration that Beethoven, as usual, gives to low strings.  The Mozart was truly lovely in the literal sense of the word, revealing, as CKP says, the sheer inventiveness of the writing.  The only disappointment was the grand retard, not indicated at all in the (Eulenberg) score, that Haitink took in the last five measures of the Pastorale.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — April 29, 2012 at 9:00 am

  3. I did comment very enthusiastically about general Sound that BSO showed off the last time they played Beethoven under the Leonidas Kavakos.  I was curious if BSO would hold that version of “Beethoven Sound” for next week when they will be playing B9 – it might be a very interesting event. I did not attend Haitink/BSO B6 but on Saturday night I was listening a fragment of B6 over radio. It appeared to me that BSO didn’t have that sonic “gravitas majesty” that they had under Kavakos and his B4. It is unfortunate…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — April 30, 2012 at 11:17 am

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