Sometime around 1975 I heard a concert that still gives me goosebumps remembering it. The violin soloist with the BSO at Tanglewood, Miriam Fried, played the Sibelius Concerto so powerfully that, to my ears, no one since has nearly measured up in this piece. Saturday night’s concert with the Boston Philharmonic under Ben Zander at Jordan Hall created new, and equally abiding memories when Fried teamed up with her friend, Kim Kashkashian, a frequent chamber music partner and NEC colleague, in a powerful performance of Mozart’s S. C. for violin and viola with the Boston Philharmonic under Ben Zander Saturday night at Jordan Hall. Rachmaninoff’s second symphony completed the program.
But first there was a nearly hour-long pre-concert talk/musical pep rally by the ever-ebullient Zander, acting as (a very persuasive) salesman for the evening’s three works. “The only reason for an overture is to allow for late seating,” he noted in his opening comments to the Overture from Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. The theme to the words “cosi fan tutte” appears twice, once in the andante introduction, and then in the presto. “These must be played at the same tempo!” he insisted. “Nobody seems to have discovered this.” Really?
The Cosi overture received considerable dispatch and energy. The Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola in E-flat Major, K. 364, composed in Paris in 1779, was a different story, performed by the reduced orchestra with really lovely tempi and articulation. Considered the most important work composed by Mozart in 1779 during his stay in Paris, it is surely one of his finest string concerti, and part of a distinguished string (so to speak) of concerti written for two or more instruments, such as the Flute and Harp Concerto, K. 299. His understanding of the nature of both violin and viola contributes to the concerto’s dramatic quality, depth, and power (we assume the viola part was intended for him as he played viola in chamber music)
I have long enjoyed Kashkashian’s (long-ago) recording (and DVD) of this piece (now on You Tube) with violinist Gidon Kremer and conductor Nicholas Harnoncourt. Saturday, it was played to musical perfection by the two soloists, who have collaborated not only as chamber musicians, but in efforts to ease hunger through Kashkashian’s five-year-old initiative, “Music for Food.” Fried played compellingly, with beauty and intensity, as did Kashkashian, whose viola playing possessed expressive beauty and unusually powerful presence. I cannot imagine hearing this work played better. Particularly memorable was the second movement Andante in which the violin and viola carry on an eloquent dialogue, answering each other with rising intensity. Was it, as Zander promised, “incredibly beautiful?” By all means, yes. Miriam Fried and Kim Kashkashian, two celebrated soloists and highly sought-after teachers are “exactly what this piece calls for.”The composer couldn’t have asked for better or better-marched soloists, and the orchestra played, perhaps, extra beautifully as a tribute.
The story of the triumph of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27, composed in Dresden between October 1906 and April 1907, is rather well-known. His First Symphony was an unmitigated disaster, leaving him in a deep depression for four years. What is not as well-known as the fortuitous end to his depression is the history of cuts in this 62-minute symphony. Rachmaninoff apparently had no serious objections to conductors making cuts. As Michael Steinberg wrote the program notes, “Some of the standard deletions consist of petty impatiences like reducing the four measures of accompaniment at the start of the first Allegro to two, but they have also entailed such brutal surgery as the removal of the entire theme from the recapitulation of the Adagio. “Cuts, he writes wisely, “do not solve formal problems: they merely shorten the time you have to spend dealing with them.” In his excellent 1973 recording, André Previn writes that, having begun by making the standard cuts, he decided “on reexamining the score… to re-instate every note… It makes the symphony undeniably long, but I feel that its honesty, its power, its heart-felt lyricism can stand it.”
This is the first time Zander has conducted the work, and clearly, he adores this once extremely popular piece that he “resisted for 43 years.” After telling us its redemptive history in the composer’s life and career, he enthused, “It’s full of “the most singular, memorable, fabulous tunes… You can just let it wash over you… The sheer sound is overwhelming, intoxicating.” Zander delineated, movement by movement, with portable keyboard illustrations, what we would be hearing. “Horns come in with a figure that’s absolutely amazing” in the first movement. The second movement , which beings with “a cossack gallop,” is “like an enveloping embrace… like skeletons rattling” with “amazing passion… just fabulous music… (There’s) utter failure leading to triumph and renewal… You’ll hear it!” This was one impassioned pre-concert talk!
In terms of cuts, Zander clearly agreed with Previn. No note was excised; the effect was long, but glorious. Zander’s abiding enthusiasm for the piece achieved airborne contagion. Famously memorable tunes, one winner after another, were spun out with admirable panache. A few players must be singled out for their superb contributions. Nicole Caligiuri, the Philharmonic’s new English horn, happens to be in her first season. Last year, she was in Zander’s youth orchestra. Thomas Hill played the 23-measure clarinet solo in the third movement soulfully. This is his last season in the orchestra after 20 years. The horns, trumpets, and low brass were terrific (particularly in the second movement). Concertmistress Joanna Kurkowicz’s solos were breathtaking. Paced beautifully, this was a real triumph for Zander and his band, who captured Rachmaninoff’s hairpin mood changes from bombastic and exuberant to romantic, heart-on-the-sleeve, and gushing. Zander described the fourth movement as full of unbridled ecstasy, “like all the bells of Russia are ringing with joy.” It was a joyful and brilliant performance by all, an extraordinary evening for players and audience alike.