Beethoven’s immortal ninth symphony runs in the blood of every symphony orchestra, and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalmscomes from the heart of the BSO’s repertoire, as a work commissioned by the organization for its 50th anniversary. On Thursday, May 3, the BSO offered its season finale in a performance of both. The ensemble was led by the venerable maestro, Bernard Haitink and was joined by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, soprano Jessica Rivera, contralto Meredith Arwady, tenor Roberto Saccà, and bass Günther Groissböck.
The Stravinsky was the program’s greater artistic success, as the group performed the work with the cold, mechanical style of which the composer often spoke, a style that is almost never heard in performance (especially among symphonic orchestras that specialize in music from the Romantic period). The iconic popularity of Beethoven’s Ninth was illustrated in the group’s seemingly effortless technical mastery and unified musical concept. The unification of concept and execution in both works was in large part thanks Haitink’s excellent direction, offering the steady hand needed to navigate the Stravinsky, as well as the wide spectrum of nuance needed to communicate Beethoven’s philosophical vision in the Ninth Symphony.
The “cold” nature of Stravinsky’s compositional vision was well served by Haitink’s mechanical approach, though the harmonic structuring of the opening movement would have been strengthened through a greater emphasis on the E-F pitch dyad. The neo-Classical character of the “upside-down fugue” of the second movement was particularly brought out by the group’s close attention to Stravinsky’s articulations. The contrasting sonar quality of the final movement was effectively announced by the chorus’s use of a “blank” vocal timbre for the opening declaration of the “alleluia.” Although the ensemble encountered a handful of technical errors (in particular, intonation issues in the soprano section), this performance should be counted as a very successful rendition of a work whose challenges range beyond technical complexities to the composer’s conception of “expressionless” music, the latter of which the group handled admirably.
After the intermission, the Beethoven. Although the first two movements featured some unfortunate moments (such as a tremendous “splat!” from the horns during the first movement, and a few bumpy entrances from the woodwinds in the opening section of the second movement), these two movements displayed an absolute consistency of concept. The third movement was the only portion of the program that I would label as disappointing: the group seemed to lack a clear conception of the movement’s overall shape, creating a mere succession of melodic episodes, while the first violins’ counter-melodic annotations consistently overshadowed the melody in the other voices. These issues induced disengagement among many members of the audience, whose focus also seemed to drift away during this movement.
The memory of this musical lull melted away, however, as the orchestra began the finale. The dialogue between the motivic material of the earlier movements and the instrumental recitative in the lower strings was very effective and well coordinated, followed by a beautiful rendition of the famous “Ode to joy” in the strings. Bass soloist Günther Groissböck’s intonation of the Schiller text was quite rousing, though in general the quartet was disappointing as an ensemble, with poor balance often leaving the alto soloist inaudible. The chorus navigated the more perilous moments with impressive control and accuracy, using timbres outside of the elegant style employed in nearly all music from the 18th and 19th centuries. Haitink’s direction, the chorus’s enthusiasm, and the orchestra’s professionalism resulted in an exhilarating culmination to the work, as well as the BSO’s 2011-2012 concert season.