IN: Reviews

Harrell and Latry Solo at BSO


Augusta Read Thomas (Micheal J. Lutch photo)
Augusta Read Thomas (Michael J. Lutch photo)

This week’s Boston Symphony subscription concert is a remarkable assortment of inspired programming. I’ve always liked the idea of putting together a warhorse (Mozart’s Jupiter), a new work (Augusta Read Thomas’ Third Cello Concerto), and a spirited revival (Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony). The formula doesn’t always work, but surely did last night.

Perhaps Christoph Eschenbach is being considered for the next Music Director of the BSO. He certainly showed his style in all its flamboyance, as well as its expert control. Some of my fellow listeners didn’t like the performance of Mozart’s beloved last symphony, but I thought it was very good indeed—especially the layered dynamics in the strings that allowed the woodwind doublings to be heard clearly, and the fine pianissimo in the second and fourth movements. I avoided watching the conductor, whose large-size forte downbeat style annoys me—it’s too much like rowing a boat. But the sound he got was superb. (The single flute in the V-I chords at the beginning of the Trio of the Minuet is too soft; an octave higher, as at m. 84, it’s just right. Paired flutes don’t become regular in the symphony orchestra until Beethoven.) My usual complaint in performances of this symphony is that the Allegro molto finale is way too fast, and so it was yesterday; the steady eighth-notes, marked staccato, were frantic, and the sixteenths completely inaudible as sixteenths. We need to hear those clearly, and we didn’t. As a contrapuntal tour de force this finale has no parallel in musical history, and it needs to be heard with complete clarity, not in a headlong rush.

Augusta Read Thomas’ Cello Concerto No. 3, “Legend of the Phoenix,” received its premiere performance with Lynn Harrell as soloist. I don’t know any other composer who has written three cello concertos since Boccherini or Popper, but I certainly would like to hear her other two. This new one was special, because a concerto, considered etymologically, is meant to be a contest, even a struggle; it’s also meant to be a dialogue. A dialogue element was mostly missing in this new concerto, and as a contest, it was an unequal one, with the cello almost entirely on the losing side. Lynn Harrell was obviously playing with all his might and often at the top of the A-string (the piece began and ended with an unaccompanied A above the treble staff, probably marked fff), but seating him on a raised platform didn’t help him to project much against the too-frequent shouting of the orchestra. The first part of the concerto featured a series of long, sustained notes back and forth between the cello and the orchestra, with the cellist, in an apparent effort to intensify the sound, playing a vibrato so wide and so furious as to distort the pitch entirely (was this really intended by the composer, and notated in the score?). Occasionally, but not often enough, there was some action on the lower three strings of the cello that could actually be heard, and never for more than two or three seconds during the entire concerto did the cello cut loose with a genuinely expressive melody.

The composer provided a four-color map outlining the formal complexities of the thirty-minute concerto in four main sections, and this was printed in the program; it confirmed my auditory impression that the entire work had too many different ideas tossed together without relating them as a continuous experience. Some of those ideas were interesting and even startling: a sudden interaction between the cello, solo violin and harp in an otherwise quiet texture (there weren’t many of these); a C major outburst with bongos, claves, piano, marimba and vibraphone; another C major episode with the cello and brass in parallel sixths. Everybody seemed to enjoy the march like pizzicato passage, with the orchestra matching the cellist’s energetic plucking which was hard to hear under the percussion. There was even a nice fight between the drums and the brass near the end of the concerto, but this was without the cello; indeed, there were several passages of very loud dynamics for orchestra alone, full of strident sound but without any melodic or harmonic connection that I could perceive, and it’s plain that I need to hear these again.

Christoph Eschenbach leads Lynn Harrell and the BSO (Stu Rosner photo)
Christoph Eschenbach leads Lynn Harrell and the BSO (Stu Rosner photo)

Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony, the so-called “Organ” Symphony composed in 1886, concluded the program. This beloved score was a favorite of Charles Munch, who recorded it with Berj Zamkochian. (Some of us also remember that the symphony furnished some of the background music for the delightful 1995 movie Babe about a sheepherding pig.) One of Saint-Saëns’ best works, it shares a cyclic-formal kinship with his Fourth Piano Concerto in the same key (1875). The main theme is related to the Dies irae but resolves much more cheerfully than does the medieval sequence. Olivier Latry played the three-manual Aeolian-Skinner organ which was renovated 8 years ago, and I had a good view of the new French style console; in French fashion, the Great is the lowermost manual. I liked his tutti registration, too, but, truth be told, for the second-theme passages in the finale I prefer the registration that E. Power Biggs used in his recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy. The organ really shines in the Maestoso finale, which formally may be the weakest part of the symphony—sturdy chorale and very dry fugue—but melody and timbre triumph over the formal triteness, and there’s a lot of harmonic imagination, too, that might have influenced Debussy. (Debussy admired Saint-Saëns cautiously; Saint-Saëns loathed Debussy’s music.)

Once again, I thought Eschenbach’s tempi were too fast. The first-movement string theme in 6/8 sixteenths was ragged. This is because the repeated-note pattern is shifted one-sixteenth “to the left,” which makes it more difficult for an ensemble to play together; Saint-Saëns must have known this, and recognized that only by maintaining a moderate tempo (72 to the half-measure) could a good ensemble be achieved. Eschenbach’s tempo was more like 96. When the Allegro moderato is resumed at the beginning of Part II (third movement), the tempo is supposed to be 80, only slightly faster than 72; this too was played too fast. Obviously Eschenbach was having a good time, and his gestures were all over the place, and the audience loved it.

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.


18 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Eschenbach divided the violins in the Mozart and in the Saint-Saens. He also took (almost) all
    the indicated repeats in the “Jupiter”, in the last movement repeating the development cum
    recapitulation which precede the stupendous polyphonic coda. This was big-band Mozart, but Bravo!

    Comment by Martin Cohn — March 16, 2013 at 9:41 am

  2. Mark writes: “…truth be told, for the second-theme passages in the finale I prefer the registration that E. Power Biggs used in his recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy.”

    Which recording, Mark? The mono recording, made by them at Symphony Hall in the mid-1950s (never reissued)? Or the stereo one made at the Academy of Music in 1962 (and reissued on CD)?

    Comment by Don Drewecki — March 16, 2013 at 1:09 pm

  3. Martin writes: “Eschenbach divided the violins in the Mozart and in the Saint-Saens.”

    Correct, that is CE’s preferred orchestral layout, as I saw several times in Philly and NYC.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — March 16, 2013 at 1:11 pm

  4. I did not listen the concert yet but a few things that I would like to note. I think it is very good that a reviewer refers to existing recordings. I think it is a very good practice as it gives some sort of point of references. I wish all reviewers mentioned some recording that illustrate their points. Also, I do like that BMI post the review about a weekend concert on Friday. Since WCRB murdered the Friday’s broadcasts it is become very hard to “preview” current concerts. For sure no one would change own concert going habits just because a good or bad review. Still as a “mostly Saturday going person” I do find that to read about concerts on Friday is more motivating then to read it on Sunday.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — March 16, 2013 at 1:59 pm

  5. Reaching into a wall full of ancient vinyl, I find that the Philadelphia-Biggs-Ormandy recording is Columbia ML 5212, made in Symphony Hall in Boston; I think it came out in 1958. The BSO-Zamkochian-Munch is RCA Victor LSC-2341, also recorded in Symphony Hall, and probably dates from 1959. The liner notes for the Philadelphia gives no specifications about Biggs’s registration except that, most peculiarly, it says “Allen organ used in this recording.” The BSO recording list’s Zamkochian’s registration in some detail, and specifically says that “The great Symphony Hall organ was designed by G. Donald Harrison, built by the Aeolian-Skinner Company, and installed in 1949.”

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — March 16, 2013 at 7:33 pm

  6. Yeah, in the later 1960s I was always informed or read that the Zamkochian was the first to use the full organ, etc. Nobody knew from Biggs in the S-S.

    OT, boy, as I type, the BSO sure is not tracking Eschenbach so well in the close of the Mozart, eesh. Stupendous counterpoint kinda smeared.

    Comment by David Moran — March 16, 2013 at 8:40 pm

  7. David Moran, please, what’s “S-S”, what’s “OT”?

    Comment by Martin Cohn — March 16, 2013 at 9:26 pm

  8. Saint-Saens; sorry, figured that was clear from context / Biggs reference.

    What a powerful broadcast that was tonight, and good to hear the SH organ in such superb LF shape (ha, just testing you :); LF = low-frequency).

    I certainly don’t know what to make of Eschenbach now, so oddly urgent in many spots, so languid in others. Wonder what the orchestra members feel, and why the end of the Mozart was rather imprecise.

    OT = off-topic, shorthand like LOL, which I shan’t explain.

    Comment by David Moran — March 16, 2013 at 10:42 pm

  9. “Legend of the Phoenix” gets its world premiere in Boston the same week the Boston Phoenix announces it’s ceasing publication. Coincidence? I think not.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 16, 2013 at 10:49 pm

  10. I know, I totally tripped over that karma tonight, as I have spent the day corresponding with old colleagues (old in all senses).

    Comment by David Moran — March 16, 2013 at 11:12 pm

  11. The Saturday was not too exiting day at Symphony Hall. The Kitten told me that I need to deactivate my snobbish, negative and pessimistic music snuffer mode and enjoy the roses. So, I did and even took my gas mask off, still in the end I did not enjoy the concert’s aroma as much as I hoped I would.

    The Mozart’s symphony was extremely tiresome. BSO demonstrated neither Mozart’s brisk, nor organization of a good professional orchestra. It was not a Mozart symphony event but rather a trio were generally OK sounding strings wrestled with BSO-style brass and everything was spiced with Mozart-mocking conductor’s pantomime. Ironically this inept BSO’s Mozart came just a week after Worchester demonstrated stunning play of Haydn’s 45 Symphony by Academy of St. Martin (sadly was not reviewed by BMI). There it was a full bloom of early Classical orchestra, with incredible professional play but at same time with dramatic, even well-rehearsed, zeal.

    Then there was Thomas’ Cello Concerto. I am not sure if it was a Cello Concerto, however there was a leading cello in the stage. BSO was truly spectacular during this Concerto. It was exactly their type of music and BSO is very good for it: the meaningless cacophony of unrelated sounds expressed with pretentions of inflated philosophy. I do not think that I am qualified to talk more about this music. Some people do find this type of sonic sequencing stimulating. I do not. Confucius said ones that the hardest thing of all is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat. I do not mind to do hard things but I am not a huge fun to do meaningless things – the Thomas’ latest Cello Concerto was exactly like that – the meaningless thing, at least to me. To my taste the Concerto would do wonderful as background music during torture of prisoners in Guantanamo but it did not good in the Symphony Hall.

    The Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony. Kitty and I split the interests in this Saint-Saëns work – I went to hear first two movements, she – the last two. Eschenbach’s blanketed the symphony with high speed indifference. The beautiful, falling-forward rhythmic poetry of the fist moment got converted into slalom skiing and neither Eschenbach was not able to express anything discriminating nor BSO was able to follow with anything communicative at this crazy tempi. The opening of the second movement the string did very nice. I felt the organ was a bit too loud but I am sure that it was just for my sit (first balcony, left 35). The continuation of the slow movement, even though it was interrupted by BSO brass, but it was OK. The third movement was embarrassing, plain and simple; I do not even want to talk about it. Somehow the Eschenbach and BSO got a grip in the last movement as Eschenbach descended to more conventional speed. The organist sounded very nice, the BSO showed some blaze here and there – it was kind of nice. The Kitten felt that organ sounded exceptionally good. I do not know. I do not listed the Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony for the organ part but where organ had to be it was there and it was nice. The Third Symphony is not the work where organ has to be great. Perhaps the Symphony Hall need to schedule some organ recitals to show off own organ? Anyhow, the organ left very pleasant feeling and I do not remember I had the same when I heard the Third Symphony in Symphony Hall 4 years back.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — March 17, 2013 at 8:00 am

  12. I don’t know much, but I know what I like. I thought Jupiter was a little lackluster; that they were going through the motions to get to the next work.

    The Cello Concerto is, admittedly, not my style of music. That being said, I found it very interesting. Then again, I don’t like music that makes me feel stupid. I feel like I don’t even know enough to comment further.

    The Saint-Seans seemed to have exaggerated tempo, both fast and slow. The opening movement was muddled as can be. The famed Munch recording is about as fast as it can be handled, in my opinion. This is one of my favorite pieces and it was a delight to see heads snap to attention when they’re collective question – “Why exactly did they put that poor organist on a flight from Paris?” – was answered. You know the moment. A great finale to a varied evening of music.

    Comment by Just my opinion, man — March 18, 2013 at 11:00 am

  13. The comments about CE’s conducting are correct, and are the reasons why he left Philadelphia under a cloud. Essentially, his conducting is pulled about, nothing is ever steady, with long ritards at strange places. In some ways he’s a modern-day Mengelberg. To his credit, he divides his violins, but the rest of the time his interpretations range from sleepy to wildly exaggerated. I understand he’s not easy to follow, either, and when he did the Mahler 4 at Carnegie 5 years ago there were small ensemble slips I would not have expected at a third or fourth repetition — and this after a brilliant Berg Violin Concerto in the first half.

    BTW, the later Biggs/Ormandy S-S 3rd is one of the few true stereo recordings from the dry but clear acoustic of the Academy of Music. They recorded and the Barber Toccata Festiva on an Aeolian-Skinner organ at the Academy, and that has been reissued on Sony Essential Classics, SBK 47655. I like the performance because the acoustic is so clear, and the PO’s playing is truly vintage fabulous.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — March 18, 2013 at 1:46 pm

  14. Actually E Power Biggs played the subscription concerts of the Saint Saens in 1959 (I was there). Very dramatic and exciting performances. He could not record it as he was under contract with CBS and the BSO was contracted with RCA) Zamkochian, I believe, played a subsequent performance and made the recording.

    H Rakatansky

    Comment by Herb Rakatansky — March 18, 2013 at 3:15 pm

  15. Very interesting; I just meant that in the local organ and LP-collector community back then, student and otherwise, Biggsie was not mentioned regularly wrt the piece. I did figure he must’ve played it, and did not know about the Philly recording; thanks.

    Weird about Esch and rhythms, but must relisten at least to the S-S, if only to crank the LF. His Bach playing, fwiw, shows solid and typically Germanic rhythmic strength.

    Comment by David Moran — March 18, 2013 at 11:08 pm

  16. As last Saturday BSO opened up the Adagio section of the Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony one moment struck me that I would like to share. It was not an instant revelation, the very same feeling I been bothering me for years while I was listening BSO but at this particularly slow movement made the notion literally screaming. With Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony the numbering of the movements are screwy and I personally feel that as organ goes for it’s long A with slow strings above it constitutes the second movement. I know that those musical scholars would consider it as an anathema but why do I care..

    So, as the Saint-Saëns’ second movement opened up BSO’s strings did fantastic job. BTW, it needs to be said that as BSO’s strings lately more and more frequently lead by Elita Kang the sound from BSO become more and more string-interesting. I personally do feel that BSO strings are better off under Ms. Kang’s wing then it was lately under Malcolm or Tamara control. It is a tangential point however. The main point to remember was that BSO strings did very nice at beginning of the Adagio.

    However, the Saint-Saëns’ Adagio is kind of different. The very nice, ultra low octave pedal point from organ, takes out all weigh out of a performing Hall, soften strings, gives to strings an ability to shine with unseen beauty, enabling stings to be super lush, super luxuriant and astonishingly colorful. Texturally BSO sting did very nice but that only highlighted how impotent BSO strings are in chromatic department. Since the wretched Ozawa times BSO strings at their best have tone/colors as if you perform a French kiss to a marble stature. The strings, primary violins, as they even try to demonstrate some colors (it have a few times (!!!) over the last 10 years) they end up to be ice-cold, sterile, and they do not deliver that magnitude of esthetical pleasure as some other, more colorful, orchestras do. I do not think that it is the problem with players; I am pretty sure that BSO members as “instrumentalists” are as good as anywhere else. However, there is more in music then just rendering right pitches at right time and even if the players do try to play good music then it would be nice if they pay attention HOW they sound from slightly more elevated perspective. I do feel that BSO strings, primary violin need some revision from chromatic perspective. I am pretty sure that any individual player from first violin section would be able to show some “interesting” chromatic results but it works very poorly in my view as a string section submerged in orchestra.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — March 19, 2013 at 9:54 am

  17. For a change there seems to be some consensus here (including Romy!), with myself included, about a concert. Lackluster, indeed. But to have heard it on the radio, for free, I can’t grumble. I found the Mozart plain but okay, the Thomas episodic although enjoyable in parts, the Organ Symphony — as always, fun to hear — excellent background for reading. Not at all like the two Munch live performances I have. One, January 1954, terrifically fast but not pushed, and a total musical joy. Two, December 1958, more standard in tempi yet engaging — *and* the BSO’s first stereo broadcast.

    Comment by Clark Johnsen — March 19, 2013 at 7:51 pm

  18. Didn’t manage to catch Eschenbach this time around. I’m a fan of his in general and find him nearly always interesting to hear, but have occasionally heard things that left me unimpressed. I attended the Berg and Mahler concert in Carnegie Hall mentioned by Don but wasn’t blown away on that occasion. The Philadelphia relationship produced some wonderful recordings, notably the Mahler 6 and Bartok CfO. He’s done the Mozart Jupiter numerous times (how many times with the BSO?), and the Saint-Saens appears to be in his core repertoire as well, as he’s reciorded it twice to date. Not sure what the BSO players think of him, but he’s ceratinly had a long-standing relationship with the orchestra. If it’s true he’s under consideration for the MD post I’d be happy enough with him. Having heard Jurowski, Nelsons, and Gatti, I’d say Eschenbach has at least as much to say interpretively as they do. I’m also old enough to remember what a wonderful pianist he was.

    Comment by FKalil — March 20, 2013 at 11:25 am

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