in: Reviews

November 3, 2012

Shaham and BSO Awesome in Britten


Gil Shaham and Juanjo Mena (Stu Rosner photo)

Gil Shaham treated Thursday’s BSO audience to an awesome reading of the Britten Violin Concerto, a modern masterwork.  This was a fabulous performance of an incredible piece, perhaps Britten’s greatest work, and one that deserves to stand at the very pinnacle of the literature with the concerti of “the other B’s.” The Britten is something of a a Requiem for the Fallen of the Spanish Civil War. Spanish Maestro Juanjo Mena, who also is Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in Britten’s home country, was an ideal partner for Shaham’s magisterial rendering of the vast range of emotions in the work. This is A Must Hear Performance. Go to Symphony Hall tonight or Tuesday night for one of the remaining reprises.

According to notes I wrote for my own performance of the work, the Concerto is based on Spanish themes and motifs and was written for a Spanish violinist, Antonio Brosa. It opens with a brief orchestral introduction followed by the statement of a long, sensual, languid, Mediterranean main theme by the violin. Then comes a starkly contrasting, military “animando,” succeeded by a quasi-cadenza where the violin meditates on the main theme while the tympani echoes the artillery of the military section.  A recapitulation follows, but this time the orchestra has the languid theme and the violin provides guitar-like accompanying commentary.

The first movement ends with a solo reprise and a tranquil, but restless coda, and a series of dreamlike double harmonics. The dream is shattered attaca by a Shostakovich-like acerbic, even violent Scherzo (a decade before Shostakovich’s first violin concerto!!).  We are in the middle of the battle in a fast 3/8…until the arrival of a Carmen-like gypsy trio section that ends in a fantastic solo for two piccolos and tuba worthy of Berlioz. The furies return until the violin emerges into a cadenza of stark contrasts, which in turn segues without pause into the last-movement Passacaglia.

Britten’s political views were, it seems, very much of the socialist, pacifist,  Left of the 1930s, which makes it all the more remarkable that this movement is modeled on, and profoundly expresses the deep religious spirituality of Bach, Buxtehude, and (my personal suspicion—no evidence) Bruckner.  Britten’s mother, legend has it, had drilled him on the importance of names beginning with “B” in music. There is also some evidence — notably the similarities in the themes of the scherzo middle movement — that Prokofiev’s First Concerto was yet another model for the work.

For me, this is a Lenten concerto. It is about the passion of those who have suffered for others. But there is yet more. After the Passacaglia “proper” of the third movement ends, there is a very long, lightly accompanied coda, which is a Lament based on the Arab and Jewish musical traditions of Moorish Andalusia.

Deborah Emery, celesta and electronics keyboard (Stu Rosner photo)

This Lament has a particular personal resonance. Once upon a time I lived in North Africa and was introduced to the medieval Arab and Sephardic Jewish vocal traditions, much of which spoke of the disappearance of the (perhaps mythical) world of Arab Grenada and Seville. Britten’s Lament is the descendant of that tradition, and conveys an almost unspeakable sense of loss. And then the work ends, like no other …on a question mark.

The Britten is in many ways more a violin symphony than a violin concerto, and the BSO rose to the virtuosic demands. Mentioning individual instruments or sections risks neglecting the overall excellence of the ensemble, but special kudos are due to the tympanist Dan Bauch who played the ostinato guitar-like rhythmic motif that unifies much of the work, as well as to the tuba Mike Roylance, the oboists Keisuke Wakao and Mark McEwen in the Passacaglia, piccolo Cynthia Meyers in the scherzo, and the brass section.

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s new piece, a co-commission from Royal Concertgebouw, Boston Symphony, Gothenburg Symphony, National de France, Royal Scottish National and Stavanger Symphony Orchestras, incorporated recorded and transformed readings from six interesting quatrains of the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, the founder of the Whirling Dervishes. Perhaps unfortunately named Circle Map (as it seemed, well, to circle), it struck me as a New Age series of sounds. After a somewhat promising introduction of “Morning Wind” — an unintentional reminder of Sandy — it proceeded to be very static for a concert opener. And at something like 26 minutes in length, it ran out of ideas long before the last of its six parts ended in silence.

The closer, Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70, was stupendous. It deserves to be heard much more often. The drive, contrast, and perhaps above all, the clarity of the voicing of Dvorak’s often mesmerizing counterpoint were all extraordinary. Much better than the impressive, but foggy, blob of sound that too many conductors get out our Bostonians. It perhaps helped that we were sitting very near the celli. What a treat to hear the fabulous lines Dvorak wrote for them, along with the usual high strings and winds! Again, under the superb leadership of Maestro Mena —conducting by heart in a memorably crisp, clear and energetic style — the excellence of the BSO shone very bright.

Lawrence Franko, an investment manager, is concertmaster of Sounds of Stow and also performs often with his wife, a pianist. He is a graduate of Harvard College (’63) and the Business School (’70).


  1. “the disappearance of the (perhaps mythical) world of Arab Granada and Seville”

    what in the name of all that is holy can this mean?

    Comment by Jerome — November 3, 2012 at 8:09 pm

  2. See the history of the Moorish history of the conquest of Southern Spain, and their subsequent expulsion.

    Comment by lawrence franko — November 3, 2012 at 10:18 pm

  3. Typed too fast. I meant “…and the subsequent expulsion of the Moors from Spain.” There are many people who romanticize Moorish Andalucia as the ‘lost paradise of multiculturalism.’

    Comment by lawrence franko — November 3, 2012 at 10:22 pm

  4. The Moors lost. And they have never forgotten that fact. One of the results was a whole tradition of Arabic song, which we heard on some special occaisons in Tunisia. See also Osama Bin Laden’s Declaration of War against the United States.

    Comment by lawrence franko — November 3, 2012 at 10:32 pm

  5. A nice example of nostalgia for a mythical Andalucia of peaceful harmony and stability is Borges’s short story “El Alpeh” (1942). I wonder if Borges knew Britten’s violin concerto? In any event, “unspeakable loss” is right — and this is also the feeling one gets from El Aleph.

    Comment by Ashley — November 4, 2012 at 8:04 am

  6. it happens to be the 2nd violin concerto in the 1930s I heard in a week, the previous on being Prokoviev’s 2nd. They happened to be in Shaham’s ‘project’.

    Shaham is not well preconceived in my opinion walking into the symphony hall, because his Sibelius and Tchaikovsky recording suggests he does not master MUSIC as well as violin techniques. Britten’s VC is not easy for me to understand. There is the affinity yet to be found. But I am willing to spend more time on it on CD, if I ever get one.

    The performance of the Finnish female composer was completely a waste of time and money. I wish the audience would be brave enough to reject noise like that.

    Mena’s Dvorak 7th is good and I remember that he worked with Ma Yoyo earlier this year. The cello concerto performance was good too.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — November 5, 2012 at 3:25 pm

  7. I couldn’t go last Thursday, so I exchanged my subscription ticket for one for the Tuesday evening performance. The Saariaho piece sounded a lot better in the auditorium than it did over the radio last Saturday. It was okay enough that I didn’t feel dishonest in continuing to applaud when the composer appeared on stage.

    And things got even better as the evening wore on — nothing startling, no new revelations about the meaning of music, just some good music, the Britten new to me and the Dvorak not especially familiar. I assume they were well performed.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 7, 2012 at 2:22 am

  8. Last night’s (Tuesday) concert was to be a welcome respite from politics. Symphony Hall was slightly less than half empty but the small audience was attentive and enthusiastic.

    The Saariaho was a better piece than I expected yet I hope that it is never replayed.

    The Britten is a masterpiece and Shaham’s playing was technically amazing but emotionally distant.

    The Dvorak 2nd..perhaps his greatest symphony was played far too loudly and with little insight re:
    Mena’s conducting.

    The Election results thrilled me and made me wonder if I really attended the BSO concert!

    Comment by Ed Burke — November 7, 2012 at 2:59 pm

  9. First, thank you so much for this column, which I will follow with interest. I’d meant to comment earlier, but got waylaid…

    I quite agree with you about most of this concert. I would be inclined to give Saariaho’s piece credit for some extraordinary scoring, perhaps on a par with Rimsky-Korsakoff, and creating a sound world which was, to my ear at least, quite new and marvelous. Ideas… well, rather disappointing after the first section.

    But on the Dvorak symphony, which I love, I very much disagree with your assessment of the performance, which we walked out of after the second movement. The textures were thickened, as if he were playing Brahms; similarly, the Bohemian charm of the dance rhythms was entirely lacking. I like Brahms, but I like Dvorak in an entirely different way; the conductor gave us the Dvorak as it would have sounded had Brahms written it.

    There! Now I’ve got that off my chest!

    Cheers! :-)

    Comment by Joel Hencken — November 25, 2012 at 8:02 am

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