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.
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.