Bernard Haitink opened his second week, conducting the BSO in a packed Symphony Hall with a program in which funereal music bookended a lyrical celebration featuring pianist Murray Perahia playing the Schumann Piano Concerto. The import of this concert was multi-layered. Steven Stucky’s tribute to Purcell in the opening offering, for instance, beautifully prepared us for Brahms’ own tribute to Bach at the end of the program.
Queen Mary II died of smallpox in 1694, leaving instructions to be buried “without extraordinary expense.” But she was so loved by the people that her funeral turned into a collective rite of passage. Henry Purcell was asked to provide music for the occasion. He produced what was noted at the time as music “so rapturously fine, and so Heavenly … and yet a plain Naturall Composition, which shows ye power of Music, when ‘tis rightly fitted and Adapted”.
Stucky was commissioned to recast this music for a modern wind ensemble, and has said of his approach “One kind of artist is always striving to annihilate the past … and so to triumph over the dead weight of routine. I am the other kind …who only sees his way forward by standing on the shoulders of those who have already cleared the path ahead.” Stucky’s recasting of Purcell is a short piece, about 8 minutes, with four sections: a march, a canzona, a choral setting, and a return of the march.
The march opened softly with appropriate solemnity, slowly building with the entrance of the woodwinds and brass, as though helping the deceased Queen to become the newest pillar of a vast cultural architecture connecting earth and sky. The funeral ritual continued with a gentle and spacious canzona, which created two levels of aesthetic distance: Purcell’s, through which the transfigured Queen is admired in her new Permanence, and Stucky’s own modern distance, ours, through which Purcell is similarly preserved from oblivion. A shimmering modernist overlay gave the effect of viewing the choral setting through a mysterious prism of time, exploiting the quintessentially English notion of common prayer in a startling new way. A glorious, dramatic return of the march, led by the BSO brass section, which has never sounded better, affirmed the value of artistic creativity as a response to the threat of loss. Stucky’s vision showed Purcell’s music to be a Death and Transfiguration that succeeds in defending beauty from destruction. O grave where is thy victory?
These features of a collective ritual were again subtly emphasized in Schumann’s Piano Concerto. If Purcell’s music was immediately recognized as magnificent, the Schumann Piano Concerto was not, typified by Liszt’s remark that Schumann “has given us a concerto without piano.” Perahia focused on the intimate, at times hypnotic interplay between piano and orchestra. Far from interpreting Romanticism as a turn towards an unbridled individualism, Perahia applied his own irrevocable modesty to celebrating Schumann’s rootedness in a shared tradition. The orchestra not only contained the Romantic impulse in the piano, but transformed it into a moving affirmation of reciprocity. Perahia’s playing was subtle and subdued. He was closely attentive to the exchange of musical ideas, particularly in the oboe and clarinet, and refrained from putting the piano in the spotlight even in the first movement cadenza.
The intermezzo was taken at a brisk pace, light and vernal, classic Schumann, but darkened with episodes of anguish. It all turned to joy with the transition to the third movement and the wonderful shift from minor to major, making the somewhat ominous opening theme of the first movement turn into shared happiness. Perahia’s hands, retracing the gestures of Clara’s own hands, defended authenticity against the soloist’s temptation to vainglory. Schumann’s point, missed by Liszt, was that the piano can be solidly logocentric without being phallocratic.
These stimulating meditations on the meaning of musical tradition created a context in which to hear Brahms’ last symphony. Brahms’ Fourth Symphony represents the culmination of his symphonic mastery. It is a complex, intricate summation, ending with the most original and powerful statement in his entire orchestral output. From the first note, Haitink gave it impulse, clean density, visible layering – all kept rigorously coherent by a pulsating momentum driving it forward with urgency. The eventual return of the opening theme refracted into marvelously audible transfigurations, at times turning to flames. The ensuing second-movement Andante conveyed an expectant mood, aware of human suffering but tinged with defiance, unafraid to venture forth even in pain. Darkness alternated fitfully with magnificent three-dimensional shapes made of daring rhythms and sonorities. Under Haitink’s baton, the second movement had a Faustian grandeur, transforming elegiac elements from Beethoven into a surprising Expressionism.
The allegro giocoso was a breathless scherzo, with Wagnerian elements being actively reinterpreted for a future Mahler, teeming with new life, an erdgeist-driven bacchanalia. This naïve embrace of future fecundity, however, was dramatically and brutally terminated by the fourth movement. Instead of life, we were confronted by catastrophe. Ominous tympani rolls reminiscent of Siegfried’s famous funeral march heralded the doom. As Felix Weingartner noted, the passacaglia finale is “a veritable orgy of destruction.” Brahms himself wrote, while working on this symphony, “I think catastrophe is coming.” Haitink brought us face-to-face with a relentless apocalypse in which all that is beautiful will perish. Clusters of instruments tried to fend off the darkness, but hope was crushed. What Haitink brought to light is that Brahms uses the most highly refined structures of the musical tradition in order to describe its own savage demise – without benefit of funeral.
The audience was deeply moved by this program. A unanimous standing ovation greeted the Schumann, likewise the Brahms. Haitink and Perahia joined forces, and a lifetime of experience each, to convey the notion that tradition deserves to be defended. As Purcell, Schumann, Brahms and Stucky understood, our capacity to preserve a common “Book of Prayer” protects us against barbarism.