Last night Oliver Knussen led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in four local premieres, two of which were his own compositions. Before the Underscore Friday concert, cellist Mickey Katz welcomed the audience and joked about the “panic” the musicians felt as they presented repertoire new to themselves. Panic was not evident in performances of Miaskovsky, Knussen, or Mussorgsky-Stokowski.
The concert opened with Nikolai Miaskovsky’s Symphony No. 10 in F, op. 30 (1928). Written in a single movement and lasting some 18 minutes, this work is scored for “the deafening roar of four trumpets, eight horns, and so on,” to quote the composer’s own quip. The symphony both is and is not programmatic, rendering in music Pushkin’s poem, “The Bronze Horseman.” Which is to say that though the narratives line up in many particulars, the composer was resistant to acknowledge any direct, point-by-point comparisons. Still the flood of the Neva river finds its parallel in the flood of notes; Evgeny’s wife is heard in the solo first violin; the brazen horseman’s coming to life is expressed by a descending figure and accompanying forte orchestral burst; the horseman’s maddening pursuit of Evgeny finds voice in rhythmic cells rumbling in the low strings; and so on. The work begins with a bass-heavy soundscape—a churning, chromatic line in bass and cello set the stage for the ensuing turmoil. This expands into a loud wall of notes, at times propulsive, at times merely oppressive (the composer’s assessment of Czar Peter II). The musical idiom, like Pushkin’s poem, is manifestly Russian. Harmonically and (to a lesser extent) melodically, this is a Romantic composition; the organization and structure, though, are Modernist, with ideas developed in a more compressed fashion. The symphony ends bleakly. I did not hear any final ennobling of the suffering lover or a release from torment (unless it be that of the musicians, liberated from the dark world Pushkin wrote and Miaskovsky composed). The performance was tight and colorful. I do not have an overall sense of this performance, but do retain episodic impressions of Miaskovsky’s programmatic narration.
Pinchas Zukerman took to the stage before reduced forces of the BSO for Oliver Knussen’s Violin Concerto, op. 30 (2002). In three movements (Recitative – Aria – Gigue) played attaca and lasting some 17 minutes; in the composer’s own words, it treats the violinist as a tightrope walker, and it oscillates between expansive melody and burlesque. The dual nature of the piece I heard, but I would not have thought of a tightrope walker had not those comments been incorporated into the program note. The composition begins and ends on a high harmonic “e” but the first movement, especially, draws on the richly resonant resources of the violin’s lower and middle registers. The sparse orchestration, used mainly for dramatic effects, gives this music a filmic quality as close-ups follow exterior, narrative shots. Knussen uses rhythmic modifications, especially in the Gigue; to my mind this recalled Britten’s play with tempo and meter, a re-thinking of the phrasal units and the unsettling of expectations related to the ictus. In the Gigue, too, the virtuosic pyrotechnics of the soloist come to the fore, with left-hand pizzicati, double-stops, and rapid shifts in musical character. The music retained a lyrical quality despite the flash and dazzle. Zukerman gave a solid and impassioned reading of this work (of course), and cloaked the whole in a lush tone and solid, eminently skillful playing. Speaking of the composition, I would have liked more of a return to the opening recitative with its full-bodied musings before work’s close on the inherent thinness of the harmonic note.
Following intermission, soprano Claire Booth arrived on stage for Knussen’s Whitman Settings, op. 25A (1991-92). Taking four texts from Walt Whitman—“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” “The Dalliance of the Eagles,” & “The Voice of the Rain”—Knussen created a musical context which interacts to heighten and contrast the poetry. The texts are difficult to sing (and hardly easy to parse); the music adds a further layer of complexity. The third setting is, perhaps, the most accessible of them, with the soaring of the eagles represented in the rising pitch of the music, the A-B form depicting the contrast between cavorting and serene sailing, and picture painting bringing the meaning of the words into the music. Booth demonstrated a broad vocal range and responded to the call for different colors, and effects. Unfortunately, substantial balance issues hampered my understanding and appreciation; from where I sat (orchestra right, a dozen rows from the stage), the singer was easily and often overpowered by the orchestra. I hope this was a localized problem. I regret that it distracted my concentration from the composition at hand.
The fourth and final work was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, not in Ravel’s famous orchestration but rather Leopold Stokowski’s from 1939. The music remains highly familiar while being startlingly different. The themes are distributed to different orchestral sections, making for a different palette of colors and timbres. I found this version richer in strings, darker in color, and generally more introspective at slower tempos. Whether these are true aspects of the Slavic character to be found in this music, as Stokowski held, I cannot say. I could not help but think Stokowski prepared this for the fabled Philadelphia Orchestra strings and their hallmark string sounds. I also cannot fathom why Stokowski left out “Tuileries” and “Limoges”. Altogether though, this is a fascinating version of Mussorgsky’s music, more subdued than Ravel’s, while remaining playful and exciting. It deserves more frequent airing, if only to keep the Mussorgsky Pictures fresh (for musicians and audiences alike). I once heard the Mussorgsky-Ravel version of Pictures performed at the Hollywood Bowl with fireworks; the Stokowski transcription would never hold up to an outdoor fireworks display. Rather, this version keeps the pictures in the museum and invites the audience into the exhibition. Chickens still disport in their shells, and Baba-Yaga’s hut still moves about on chicken legs. Now, though, we are invited to reflect on these musical portraits, to ruminate on canvases where the colors are not the vibrant ones of animated cartoons but a palette more worthy of an Old Master. The augmented string sections of the BSO effectively brought these lush soundscapes to life.
This concert repeats Saturday night at 8pm.