in: Reviews

March 1, 2014

Boston Phil: Sublime Mozart, Uneven Bruckner

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A capacity crowd packed Symphony Hall on Friday night for the fourth concert of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2013-2014 season. Local favorite and BMInt advisor Robert Levin [BMInt bibliography here] joined Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonic for an inspired account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto #25 in C Major, K. 503. A much larger orchestra played Bruckner’s Symphony #7 in E Major, to equally enthusiastic acclaim, though the Bruckner frustrated this reviewer with its problematic pacing and balance.

In a recent profile [here] Levin quipped, “Nobody in Boston needs to hear me play more of the Viennese classical school or, for that matter, Bach, which I know are my signature things.” But a scan of BMInt reviews shows but two other performances of Mozart piano concertos in the past six years. I’m grateful for the chance to hear this performance last night. Levin joined the orchestra throughout with what sounded like improvised accompaniment (the score indicates no continuo part). He played repeated musical figures with his characteristic tasteful, idiomatic ornamentation. And there were terrific original cadenzas in the outer movements. The first movement cadenza combined three or four motifs from the movement with Mozartian contrapuntal skill, culminating in crossed-hand craziness without veering out of Classical balance. The final movement cadenza was peppered with Beethovenian hesitations and pregnant pauses before enthusiastically sweeping into the recapitulation. In the slow movement, Levin started embellishing the piano figures from the very beginning, and made gorgeous chamber music with the Philharmonic’s winds, turning his back to the audience to keep eye contact with the conductor and wind players and deftly shifting between solo and supporting lines. And Levin bobbed, swayed, and grinned throughout with a youthful verve and enthusiasm that belied his status as an impending Professor Emeritus.

Zander drew splendid playing from the Boston Philharmonic. The orchestral ritornello in the first movement had a big-boned, old school kind of pomp and grandeur which works well for this most march-like of concerto movements. The string playing was vibrant and lush, and the wind choir played with exquisite balance. The slow movement showcased flutist Kathleen Boyd, oboist Peggy Pearson, bassoonist Ron Haroutunian, and hornist Kevin Owen, who responded with gorgeous tone, subtle gradations of dynamics and speed, and all the little things that make for great chamber music. And all of the layers of Mozart’s counterpoint came through crystal clear, providing skillful support for Levin’s pianistic legerdemain.

After the intermission, the orchestra doubled in size for the Bruckner. Many of the virtues heard in the Mozart were also present in music by this other master from the Austrian hinterlands. The string sections played with opulent, sumptuously matched tone, and each section got a chance to shine with principal thematic material (the cellos and violas at the gorgeous hushed sunrise opening of the first movement, the second violins in the recap of the first movement, the violas in the opening to the second movement). The wind section continued to play with shape and specificity, with a gorgeously handled trio in the recapitulation to the first movement and moments of heartbreaking vulnerability in the second movement.

What tarnished this performance for me was the brass section. In the development to the first movement, they started coming in too loud, with shaky intonation souring the horn chords. The slow movement features a series of four slow rolling builds, accumulating power and sweep in its mournful funeral cortege, and reaching progressively higher peaks; here, the brass drove the dynamics too loud, too quickly, obliterating the subtle gradations of strings and winds underneath and making for a fourth climax which was best experienced with hearing protection (by that time, even the apocryphal cymbals and triangle were playing too loudly). The medieval hunting party of the third movement Scherzo moved dynamically to 11 again, offering relief only with the string-and-wind Trio section. And the fourth movement was so loud that I started mentally shutting down halfway into the movement.

I’m also not convinced by Zander’s general approach to tempos in this symphony.  Bruckner extended the “heavenly length” and grand scale of late Schubert, and worked in blocks of sound building to colossal climaxes in the style of an organ improvisation. Pulling off a movement of this scope takes control over dynamics, as discussed above, and a unity of pulse so that the sections hang together and each subsequent section can build on what came before. Zander’s tempos seemed unstable from the beginning. Some might call it fluid, but he seemed to speed up and slow down to bring out individual effects (a quick study of the score shows shifts of tempo between sections, but no fluctuation within a section). This made the symphony a colossal collection of impressive musical sound bites that didn’t add up to a coherent hour-long whole.  To be sure, some segments worked better—the third and fourth builds of the slow movement showed a stirring accumulation of momentum and power (even if it was too loud). But it was the successful sections, and the remarkable quality of collaboration in the Mozart that made the other moments all the more frustrating.

Maestro Zander returns to Symphony Hall next Friday, March 7 with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in a work better suited to his flamboyant style, Mahler’s Symphony #5. The Boston Philharmonic returns to Symphony Hall on April 25 with Mahler’s Symphony #9.

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

7 Comments

  1. Could not agree more with this detailed and insightful review. Maestro”s talk explaining why he could think of the 7th as
    “perhaps the greatest symphony” confirmed our expectations of a great performance coming up. . After a wonderful K503 the Bruckner,particularly the last movements, was loud,rushed and upsetting. Well,on to the next concert.

    Comment by morty schnee — March 2, 2014 at 11:43 am

  2. Correction to my above comment: I was able to ask Maestro Zander about what he had said and it was one of his players who felt
    Bruckner 7 was “the greatest.” He,of course, says there is no greatest. Thank God

    Comment by morty schnee — March 2, 2014 at 7:21 pm

  3. My feeling could ne wrong, but I once again sensed that the ‘educated’ Boston audience are not educated to love Bruckner. (Probably would not be a surprise for the composer himself)

    With respect to the B Phil orchestra members while facing the reality, one should not expect to hear sth really good by critical standard. Unlike the reviewer, all sections are not satisfactory to my ears. But I have to agree brass group was too loud at some moments. Still, it is hard to tell whether that was bad execution or bad intention. Code of the 1st movement was a big disappointment on top of everything before. The closing of the 2nd movement was the moment that is closest to being moving(that was more because of Bruckner).

    Not sure if I am convinced by the reviewer’s comments on the conductor’s tempo. There is one thing I want to point out: scherzo in the 4th symphony is unmistakably hunting, one need not to be confused between B4 and B7. B7 scherzo is sth else. There is not much evidence (presented to my ears) showing hunting scenes.

    There is another Bruckner concert up coming. But I will avoid that one, because of Mehta, whose awful B9 recording was hyped into Decca ‘legendary’ status by the british critics.

    Comment by Thorsten — March 2, 2014 at 7:57 pm

  4. morty, anyone who is naturally gifted in PR would answer the same.

    Comment by Thorsten — March 2, 2014 at 7:59 pm

  5. The reviewer remarks, “Levin joined the orchestra throughout with what sounded like improvised accompaniment (the score indicates no continuo part).”

    It was indeed improvised. But Mozart does indicate a continuo role for the soloist during the tuttis by entering the indication ColB (= Col Basso), directing the soloist to play along with the string basses (but not the celli when they are separate, or the bassoons when the basses are silent). In the earlier concerts the bass is figures (usually Mozart’s father Leopold). In K503, like the other mature concertos, ColB appears in the lower staff of the piano part at the beginning of every page of the orchestral score where the piano has no obbligato role. Scholars are united in concluding that if the left hand is to double the string bass line, this means that the right hand is to play continuo. I liken the situation (quite seriously) to Duke Ellington or Count Basie during the Swing Era—establishing a psychological presence when the whole band plays that presages the emergence of the soloist.

    Charles Rosen argued vehemently against the use of continuo, but the historical facts are arrayed against him.

    Comment by Robert Levin — March 4, 2014 at 3:11 pm

  6. It is true that the Collected Edition scores have rather few tempo indications, but abundant evidence from Bruckner’s time shows that tempo changes in his symphonies were meant to be frequent and organic. As for the percussion, no serious Bruckner-specializing musicologist today believes that it is “apocryphal”, or spurious in any way.

    William Carragan
    Vice-president, Bruckner Society of America

    Comment by Willilam Carragan — March 4, 2014 at 7:24 pm

  7. Thanks to Prof. Levin for the illuminating comments. For what it’s worth, my ears are quite used to hearing harpsichords and organs playing as part of a continuo group. They have gotten used to hearing fortepianos playing in continuo groups, often in early Mozart concertos or operas on period instruments. My ears are still getting used to hearing a modern pianoforte playing a continuo part, and I’ve certainly seen more than one soloist disengage during the orchestral tuttis of a Mozart concerto. Kudos are due in many departments, to Prof. Levin for improvisations that didn’t necessarily indulge obvious choices and did add interesting texture to the orchestra playing, and to Maestro Zander and the Philharmonic for playing with enough lightness and transparency that the piano could be heard clearly throughout.

    Prof. Carragan has worked long and hard on a number of thorny questions of how to sort out all the variants, alternate versions, and reconsiderations in the Bruckner scores. I’m not saying I’m against some flexibility of tempo; some of my favorite Bruckner conductors like Barbirolli, Furtwängler, and Walter would make judicious use of rubato. But I am suggesting that the shifts made in the performance at hand were not organic, and disrupted the greater structure. And Prof. Carragan does note in http://www.abruckner.com/Data/articles/articlesEnglish/carraganwilliamversions/versionsoncemorerevised.pdf that the cymbal and triangle were added after the symphony was completed, not in the original conception (the apocryphal story that I’ve heard is that they were suggested by conductor Artur Nikisch). They can have their place, but when the brass is playing too loud, and everyone starts pushing too much, the overplaying of cymbal and triangle does not add dignity to the climax of the funeral march.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — March 4, 2014 at 10:41 pm

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