Prokofiev and Beethoven might be considered unusual program mates, yet there they were, together at Tanglewood Friday evening. Officiating were the exacting French maestro Stéphane Denève, pianist Emanuel Ax, and John Oliver’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus, with the BSO providing the colorful accompaniment.
Accompaniment here is not meant to diminish the achievements of our great orchestra, but its role was indeed to attend, both in Beethoven’s magisterial Emperor Concerto and in Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky, which the composer wrote to enhance Sergei Eisenstein’s landmark 1938 same-named film. Emmanuel Ax was the able pianist in the Beethoven, and the impressive Elena Manistina was the moving mezzo-soprano soloist in the Prokofiev.
This is Beethoven’s most popular piano concerto: it harbors many memorable and tuneful moments that stay with the listener afterward, and the piece is rampant with startling ideas and clear homages to the Romanticism that Beethoven explored in his earlier and more daring, in some ways, Piano Concerto No. 4. Think of how the two concertos begin. In the Fourth, the piano begins with a solo, quietly intoning a rhythmic figure familiar from the concurrently composed Fifth Symphony, but miles away in gesture. The orchestra then quietly answers in a startling foreign key. The Emperor begins with a series of fortissimo chords from the orchestra, each followed immediately by joyfully pealing pianistic arabesques, all as prelude for the movement’s first real theme. These two remarkable introductions alone could assure Beethoven’s place in the pantheon of musical daring.
Ax played with his accustomed aplomb, only occasionally betraying lack of probing, which this work’s intellectual depth can benefit from. That and a few slips aside, he was admirable in consistency and touch, and with Denève’s meticulous attention to dynamics, especially evident in the concerto’s Adagio, all the musicians did indeed give us a glimpse of the sublime to be found in this wonderful work, albeit fleetingly. All told, it was a fine exposition of noble music, with Denève getting interestingly legato playing in this occasionally muscular score, at times lending it an unaccustomed lyrical quality. Associate timpanist Daniel Bauch played his solo at the close of the third movement with admirable rhythm and superbly judged diminuendo and rallentando.
By the very end, I wished for a bit more flexibility and introspection from soloist and conductor, but those qualities were evident in an eloquently performed encore from Ax after being recalled to the stage for a third time: Schumann’s Des Abends from his Fantasiestücke. It was Ax’s most compelling playing of the evening, and he held both audience and orchestra in rapt attention.
Alexander Nevsky, Opus 78, Cantata for mixed chorus and orchestra, with mezzo-soprano is a concert synthesis of music Prokofiev wrote to accompany the Eisenstein film. The Cantata’s libretto recalls Nevsky’s earlier repulsion of an army of invading Swedes and describes the later depredations visited upon Russia in the 1200s by still more invading armies−notably the Teutonic Knights−and the heroic exploits of Alexander Nevsky in expelling them.. As Steven Ledbetter’s program note states: “The Eisenstein-Prokofiev collaboration on Alexander Nevsky produced one of those very rare occasions in which a great film is accompanied by a superb score.”
It is impressive music indeed. The orchestra is quite large, with a well-stocked percussion section. At moments a tenor saxophone adds its unique tone. Brass instruments are challenged by punishingly high tessiturae and difficult passages of rapid articulation. Odd effects of strings struck by the wood of the bow, glissandi, tremolandi,pervade their parts. In short, not only is this music remarkable, it is extremely colorful. Add to this a full-throated chorus declaiming the invincibility of Russia, and a rich and deeply flavored borscht-like concoction is the bracing result.
Denève had meticulously prepared orchestra and chorus, with, I was told, every i dotted and every t crossed and then some. It all came together brilliantly. The orchestra was vivid, touching, overwhelming, or impactful as the score requires, with first trumpet Thomas Rolfs, tuba virtuoso Mike Roylance, and Toby Oft’s trombone section giving pellucid hue and weight. The percussionists banged, stroked and crashed their 11 specified instruments, with timpanist Timothy Genis applying admirable artistry throughout.
Mezzo soloist Elena Manistina was also moving in fact, slowly coming onstage during the introduction to her lament, an aria searching the battlefield for her lover, who had fought the invading army. As she is a statuesque, immediately commanding figure, it was a dramatic gesture to have her appear in this manner. All would have been for naught had she not possessed an equally commanding instrument. She sang with compelling pride and hope in gorgeous tone, her deep notes contralto-like in their richness. The moment of calm and reflection after bloody battle was enhanced by her artistic sensitivity. Denève and the orchestra accompanied the poignant scene with a quiet expressivity.
And then of course there was the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by John Oliver, armed to the hilt with Russian pride and swagger, and an appropriately powerful sonority spread across the idiomatic language declamation that had been thoroughly rehearsed and coached by Lidiya Yankovskaya. There is no Nevsky without chorus. Lucky us that it was TFC. All that was asked for they gave, and considerably more: a palpable sense of purpose that inspired and edified. Cпаси́бо and Наздоровье to them all.