Christian Zacharias, who appeared at Symphony Hall with the BSO today, is a first-rate pianist and a sensitive conductor who also masters both capabilities very well at the same time. His podium style includes the kind of excess motion that I usually deplore in conductors, but he differs considerably from the exhibitionists: the rhythm and kinesis of the music are absorbed into Zacharias’s bodily motion and reflected back to the orchestra in a way that really communicates to the players. Sometimes this seems exaggerated and other times it seems too cute, as when Zacharias wagged his head from side to side, or shifted from one foot to the other in time with the music. But in fact I was not troubled by this, because the communication genuinely succeeded, and I was really preoccupied with watching the way Zacharias gestured directly, conducting less with the arms and more with the hands, wrists, and even the fingers, as though the whole orchestra were a large keyboard. (I can remember when I studied at the Conductors Institute in 1989, and Harold Farberman gave a convincing demonstration of conducting with his eyebrows alone —well, I suppose it was the entire brow.) I cannot imagine all of this working well with any but a first-rate orchestra; it certainly worked well on Friday afternoon.
A smaller string section (10-10-8-6-4, I think) was on hand for Haydn’s Symphony No. 76 in E-flat Major, a work I had never heard before. I’m no violinist, but I think someone should have told Haydn that a repeated figure of four sixteenth notes, when the first two are slurred and the last two staccato, is difficult to play at fast tempo, especially when the third of the four notes is the open G string. I would think that inevitably the sound is ungainly if not muddy, as it was this time; but it forms only a small part of the generally bouncy melodic writing in the opening Allegro.
The slow movement, Adagio ma non troppo, a small-rondo form in B flat major, is the expressive high point of the entire symphony. Its action begins with strings alone, a 28-bar period marked p, and this is followed by 32 bars of minore — B-flat minor — with sustained and beautifully luminous winds above the delicate repeated notes in the strings, pp. The dynamic contrast was elegant. The initial section is then repeated with some variation, and then there is another minore, but this time it is G minor, and a stormy ff in which flute, violins, cellos, bass, play the faster melody in four different octaves over the slower winds; I don’t recall anything quite like this elsewhere in Haydn. The third varied repetition of the main melody featured the first violins, as before, but for some reason this was given to a solo violin, though not called for in the score.
The third movement is one of Haydn’s more ponderous minuets; possibly Haydn wanted a serious contrast to the busy dancelike spirit of the first movement, which is also in 3/4 meter. One might mistake this movement, on first hearing, for a minuet of Beethoven rather than Haydn. A sense of playfulness is restored in the Allegro ma non troppo finale, a sonata form, with a main melody full of gruppetti and Scotch snaps. In all of this, everybody seemed to be enjoying the music.
Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat Major, K. 456, is one of four concerti written in the same key within a few years of each other that all have finales in 6/8; the other three are Mozart’s K. 450 and 595, and Beethoven’s No. 2, op. 19 (composed before no. 1 but published later). I can remember a glowing performance of this same concerto in Symphony Hall about fifteen years ago, with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Radu Lupu; like that one, this performance today featured the pianist with back to the audience, and the lid of the piano removed. Zacharias’s conducting style was more reserved with this piece, even when he was standing up for the ritornelli. I gave more attention to his playing, which was smooth and light with excellent singing tone and well-shaped melody at all times; he had a tendency to slightly rush some of the faster passagework with the damper pedal depressed but without disrupting the tempo, and I remember this was characteristic of Schnabel’s playing in Mozart concerti as well — it was part of the charm. We heard some fine orchestral playing, too; in the first movement there are several exposed places for horn (Richard “Gus” Sebring) (written in B-flat alto) that rise to high F, as delicately executed as they were fearless. As in the Haydn symphony, the slow movement was what conveyed the most poignant expression. Mozart doesn’t often use variation form in his concerti, but this one, in G minor, was rich and warm. (Other concerto-variation examples: the finale of K. 453, which is brilliant, and the finale of K. 491, which is plodding; and the C minor slow movement of K. 482, which may be the best of all.)
Until today I had never been notably fond of Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus ballet music. The overture, very fast and very light, is the only part likely to be familiar to most audiences, and it is full of the triumphal gaiety found in Beethoven’s other overtures in C major — the three Leonore and Consecration of the House — as well as an announcement-like slow introduction. This performance did not include the entire ballet score but only the better-known dance excerpts and movements that can be called instrumental recitatives with arias, with elaborate soli. In no. 5 there is even a harp solo; the only time I can recall Beethoven ever writing for this instrument. In the duet for cello and clarinet Jules Eskin, cello soloist, seemed to falter somewhat in intonation, though his delicacy and expression were assured. In no. 14, the “Solo della Cassentini,” I couldn’t see the instrument, but it was plain that a basset clarinet was being used; it went all the way down to F, and its tone was intrinsically less smooth than that of the normal soprano clarinet. (Few composers after Beethoven ever used the basset horn or alto clarinet — Strauss in Elektra, and Stravinsky in some of his late twelve-tone works, spring immediately to mind.) As for the Prometheus finale, everyone knows the beginning of it already, as the third variation in the finale of the Eroica Symphony, the final form of this theme that was obsessive in Beethoven’s compositional life. (Earlier manifestations are to be heard in Beethoven’s Contredanse for piano, WoO 14 No. 7, and the 15 Variations for piano, Op. 35.) Even in this next-to-final orchestral form, there are palpable differences from the Eroica version. After a few digressions, it turns into the fast passagework of the Prometheus overture once again, not in C major but in E-flat major, the Eroica key.
Beethoven’s ballet was very popular in its day, but it has faded since, chiefly because we know what Beethoven composed later. There is not much Sturm und Drang here, and little in the way of symphonic development. But there is a good deal of bright song and dance, and Beethoven would have considered those as entertainment, and a high-quality entertainment at that. The audience gave Christian Zacharias a well-deserved standing ovation for his adroit and unassuming but commanding leadership.