in: Reviews

November 23, 2012

Christian Zacharias’s Piano and Podium Mastery


Pianist and conductor Christian Zacharias (Stu Rosner photo)

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.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.


  1. At the conclusion of the concert, I said to my brother, “This music deserves to be better known.”

    I cannot compare the performance to Reiner’s definitive recordings with the Cleveland Orchestra (sarcasm intended). All I can say is that all three works are well worth hearing. It is amazing that the BSO had never done the Haydn before Friday or the Mozart for decades after its founding, even before the works of Elliott Carter necessarily took center stage (sarcasm again intended).

    Sarcasm aside, all three works were a delight to hear and confirmed (as if it were needed) the compositional genius of their composers beyond their warhorses.

    I assume that in the Haydn, the man occupying the first chair in the horns was none other than the new third horn, Michael Winter. It’s the first time I’ve seen him in the first chair, and I’m assuming it’s the first time he’s filled that role with the BSO. At any rate, as I said to my brother, “The new kid in the horn section acquitted himself very well.” He agreed. I didn’t notice a single fluff or any other problem in his playing. Too bad Maestro Zacharias didn’t give any solo bows after the Haydn so I could have voiced my congratulations on the successful “debut,” but Keisuke Wakao did turn and speak to him with a big smile.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 24, 2012 at 3:02 am

  2. “Few composers after Beethoven ever used the basset horn…”

    True enough, but I can’t resist mentioning that it was (italicize “was,” please!) used by a famous dramatist when he was writing some fascinating music reviews in England: George Bernard Shaw’s pseudonym for his music columns was “Corno di Bassetto.”

    Comment by Alan Levitan — November 24, 2012 at 10:10 am

  3. Alan — what works for me is to type a then the content which I want italicized, again without a space. To end the italicizing, it is and then you’re out of the italic font.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 24, 2012 at 1:14 pm

  4. Drat! It hid the business parts of my previous post. Let’s try to explain it this way: I begin italics by typing a capital comma (i.e. comma key + shift) then without a space the letter i and then without a space a capital period (period key + shift). What follows shows up in italics, without displaying the code. Then to get out of italics, it’s capital comma then / then i then capital period all without a space. In other words, a slant bar before the letter tells it to end the special typeface. You can also get boldface by going the same drill with a b instead of an i. If you want bold italics, you have to do each code separately.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 24, 2012 at 1:24 pm

  5. The BSO’s Fenwick Smith once told me that conductors make greater use of their eyes than most people may be aware of. The eyes are, after all, the only visible part of the brain (scientific fact) as well as the window of the soul (semi-defensible metaphor). And it’s an exchange — when it IS an exchange — that an audience doesn’t get to see.

    Fact-checking alert. When (see above comment) did Fritz Reiner ever record with the Cleveland Orchestra?

    For my money, caps are a perfectly allowable alternative to italics, in some situations at least. You get to imagine the speaker looking up briefly, altering the tone of his voice, then reverting to the previous one. They’re more allowable in online use, I’d say, than in print, where overuse might very well put the reader in mind of tabloid headlines (e.g.,”FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD”).

    Comment by Richard Buell — November 24, 2012 at 2:43 pm

  6. I made up the bit about Reiner as part of my sarcastic poking fun at the commenters who insist on saying that the performance they just heard can’t compare with the one that so-and-so did or recorded with such-and-such orchestra — the people for whom good is a;ways inadequate.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 24, 2012 at 3:01 pm

  7. I’m not enough of an organologist to know the difference between a basset horn and an alto clarinet, other than that the first is in F and the second in Eflat, but I would suspect that bother instruments look like a small bass clarinet. When I was first doing arrangements for band, I never knew what to do with the alto clarinet that an Eflat alto sax couldn’t also do, and sometimes better. But so many band instrumentations for band (believe it or not, I have heard the term “bandstration” used) are in fact planned with this in mind, to include as much instrumental doubling as practical, so that performances can be organized around what is available. Holst’s Suite no. 1 might have as many as 40 different parts cued into the score, but the new edition suggests that even Holst felt it could be done with as few as 19 players. But among many tired musicians’ jokes (especially viola jokes, but there are others) I heard one that I thought was funny: “What’s the definition of a musical nerd?” Answer: one who owns his own alto clarinet.” I’m going to try Joe Whipple’s italic-code instructions on “owns.” Whether it works or not, thanks, Joe.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — November 24, 2012 at 4:03 pm

  8. To Joe Whipple: I much prefer your first email to your second. It has a mysterious poignancy about it. Your second email instruction might indeed work, but reading it aloud sent me into gales of laughter. How much easier it is to write “italicize ‘was,’ please” when it’s merely a three-letter word! And it might well give the reader a sense of mission, not to say accomplishment, to do so in his/her mind when reading the passage.

    To Richard Buell: I can’t help feeling that capitalized words, especially when addressed to critics rather than to intimate friends (who know that the words aren’t meant as shouted words), come across as a bit too loud and authoritarian. I much prefer the relative softness of “italicize ‘was,’ please.” My preference would be onerous, of course, were a long passage to be italicized. I also rather like the double echo of “z” sounds in “italicize was, please.”

    Comment by Alan Levitan — November 24, 2012 at 4:10 pm

  9. Why Corno di Bassetto? Here is G.B.S.’s explanation from 1935:

    “I was strong on the need for signed criticism written in the first person instead of the journalistic “we”; but as I then had no name worth signing, and G.B.S. meant nothing to the public, I had to invent a fantastic personality with something like a foreign title. I thought of Count di Luna (a character in Verdi’s Trovatore), but finally changed it for Corno di Bassetto, as it sounded like a foreign title, and nobody knew what a corno di bassetto was.

    “As a matter of fact the corno di bassetto is not a foreigner with a title but a musical instrument called in English the basset horn. It is a wretched instrument, now completely snuffed out for general use by the bass clarionet. It would be forgotten and unplayed if it were not that Mozart has scored for it in his Requiem, evidently because its peculiar watery melancholy, and the total absence of any richness or passion in its tone, is just the thing for a funeral. Mendelssohn wrote some chamber music for it, presumably to oblige somebody who played it; and it is kept alive by those works and by our Mr Whall. If I had ever heard a note of it in 1888 I should not have selected it for a character which I intended to be sparkling. The devil himself could not make a basset horn sparkle.”

    Comment by Richard Buell — November 24, 2012 at 4:48 pm

  10. A basset horn is in F, alto clarinet is in E-flat as Mark DeVoto states. The bigger difference is that a basset horn descends to a written C below middle C whereas an alto clarinet (like all modern clarinets except for extended bass and contrabass instruments) stops at the E a third above. This gives the sound some more roundness in addition to allowing the instrument to play lower notes.

    Interesting fact about Mozart’s use of the basset horn in the Requiem: not a single note falls outside the range of the B-flat clarinet. But the tone quality of a basset horn played in the high register (especially a period instrument) is worlds away from a clarinet in the middle register.

    Comment by Thomas Dawkins — November 24, 2012 at 8:48 pm

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