in: Reviews

March 3, 2014

Chamber Orchestra with a Heart for Brahms

by

Cellist Nicolas Altstaedt (file photo

Cellist Nicolas Altstaedt (file photo

The Discovery Ensemble, now in its sixth year, reveled in its mature orchestral sound and outstanding technical capability under Courtney Lewis’s expert direction yesterday at Jordan Hall, to the extent that it could even play a Brahms symphony with understanding and confidence while remaining at heart a chamber orchestra. The group’s outstanding strength lies in its excellent string section. Precision of ensemble was everywhere apparent, but even more evident was the beauty of string tone throughout the concert—even in Berg’s Lyric Suite movements which were a constant struggle.

Apart from a few accented tutti chords that I thought were a little too loud, I thought that the warmly expressive and thoroughly dramatic performance of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, D 759 (no. 7 by the new numbering), was beautiful and well-nigh flawless. This work is so familiar to audiences after a century and a half that one needs to recognize again what makes it so remarkable as an individual work; the mysterious beginning of the first movement, for example, with its slow opening melody followed by gently pulsating violins and a quiet drumbeat in plucked cellos and basses, hinting ominously at drama to come, is unlike any other music of the time. The entire first movement, indeed, is a test of strength between the expressive piano and the sudden fortissimo. In the Discovery’s performance we knew that this symphony sounded best as a full orchestra—with full complement of winds—realized with a chamber orchestra’s string section, with approximately half as many string players as the Boston Symphony would use in performing any standard Romantic repertory. (And though I may be wrong, I could swear that the timpanist was reinforcing various accents with extra notes.)

Haydn’s Cello Concerto no. 1 in C major is not as well-known as the second, in D major, but it is a handsome work that not only exhibits the solo instrument to good advantage but balances it well with the orchestra. Nicolas Altstaedt kept his cello sound relatively restrained and intimate, without the heroic declamation that one expects in the big 19th-century concertos; this isn’t Elgar or Dvorak or Saint-Saens, after all. But Altstaedt’s fingers were fleet, his tone rich, and his control quite fearless. If there was anything excessive in his style, it was in his body language, which included some audible stamping on the platform, and a lot of inquisitive looking-around as though trying to assist the accompanying ensemble. But these mannerisms didn’t detract from a radiant performance, which the orchestra found obviously sympathetic and that the audience approved with cheers.

Berg’s Lyric Suite has been recognized ever since its premiere in 1927 as one of the most important works ever written for string quartet. Perhaps Berg hoped that an arrangement of three of its six movements for string orchestra of three of its six movements would make the work more widely accessible to audiences; yet the string-orchestra version is a real rarity in the orchestral repertory. One likely reason is that the technical difficulty of the original version is considerably magnified in the orchestral version, especially in the quicksilver velocity of the Allegro misterioso, where the problems of instantaneous coordination make some sections of the work quite unplayable with any realistic degree of accuracy. (Even such a brilliant and beautifully musical performance as that recorded by the Juilliard String Quartet in 1962 suffers from significant defects of ensemble. One suspects that the pioneering Kolisch Quartet could give certain passages only an approximate performance, and that Berg knew it.) Yesterday’s reading understandably fell short of ideal, but it nevertheless gave a very good account of the most human moments, especially in the Andante amoroso and the Adagio appassionato. Courtney Lewis, discussing the Lyric Suite in the pre-concert talk, gave a good summary of the astounding discovery of the “secret program” in 1977 by the composer George Perle. (I could mention one nice recent finding: in the Andante amoroso, at the point where Hanna Fuchs’s young son Munzo is depicted “mit einem leisen tschechischen Einschlag,” this “gentle Czechish touch” may very well refer to Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance op. 46 no. 8, which has exactly the same syncopated rhythm.

Toward the end of this long program one wondered how the Discovery Ensemble, nominally a chamber orchestra, could adequately represent Brahms’s Third Symphony without straining or tiring. But this performance was generally satisfying. Brahms, in his symphonies, always seems to emerge as the anti-Wagnerian composer. As an orchestrator, he was always conservative; except in the German Requiem, he never called for a larger orchestra than double woodwinds plus a piccolo or contrabassoon, and ordinary 4-2-3-1 brass. Occasionally he ventured into textural experiments that simply don’t work well, and the beginning of the third movement of the Third Symphony is such an instance; the attempt to create a rich heterophony in the strings, with the cello melody in the middle, simply results in an irretrievably muddy sound; and yet it works perfectly in the da capo, when the horn has the melody.

Overall the symphony included delicious solo playing (especially the woodwinds in the second theme of the first movement), a lively animation, and well-articulated textures, even where Brahms asked for what was inevitably too much arpeggiation in the strings. Occasionally the horns in the high register sounded too loud for the general wind balance, but this is my only small complaint. As for the trombones, Lewis need not have worried (as reported in his interview): their restrained sound in the finale was almost spectral. Lewis had everything well controlled and intelligently planned, and although he might have got the same results, or even better, with a smaller beat and less exaggerated gestures, it was plain that the group responded well to his direction. “Frei aber einsam” (F-A-E) was well vindicated by “Frei aber froh” (F-A-F) in this hearty performance.

The announcement at intermission mentioned that Courtney Lewis has been appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic beginning next year followed the congratulatory interview BMInt ran here earlier in the week. He will continue to direct the Discovery Ensemble in Boston for the foreseeable future. And there will be one more concert with the group this year, on April 13. Stravinsky’s austerely beautiful but rarely-heard Symphonies of Wind Instruments will be a featured work, and I hope they perform the original version (1920) even though the revised version of 1948 is rare enough.

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.

1 Comment

  1. This review is just about what I would have written=high praise from an old cynical guy. A strong group playing for a dynamic leader,plays 3 classics very well as we all hum and conduct along. As much as I admire Berg i cannot connect with Lyric Suite even with its biographical interests. We’re sorry to have missed this orchestra until now, but will be back next month . Thank you for the fine review.

    ms

    Comment by morty schnee — March 3, 2014 at 10:20 pm

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