IN: Reviews

Speed Goes Viral at BSO


Before Thursday evening’s program got underway, Managing Director Mark Volpe took a moment to reflect on the passing earlier in the day of Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “We have dedicated this concert to his memory. He was a great friend of the Boston Symphony Orchestra appearing often at Symphony Hall.” Many were pleasantly surprised to learn that the Mayor’s second inauguration was held in the hall where Menino, himself, conducted the Boston Pops.

Two of the most inviting concertos to have come out of the 20th century are Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto in G minor. Both have their own individual voices, both display their respective cultural roots, and both possess enormous charm.

Unfortunately, Frank Peter Zimmermann’s menacing tempos in the Sibelius Violin Concerto allowed for little detail much of the way, often leaving the orchestra wondering what to do.

Having gained world stature through his performances with major orchestras, Frank Peter Zimmermann impressed yet did not surprise in Thursday evening’s first of a three-concert run. That he would opt for breathlessness in his playing was no surprise. His so opting would ultimately level out the emotional playing field of Sibelius, and that was a surprise. There were only a few moments of emotion, of mood, of being able to fix upon the concerto’s inner life. Brief flares of rich sounding passion would come with the first movement’s signature theme. Then, in the opening of the third movement, a happy-go-lucky whistler sprang out of his Stradivarius of 1711 which once belonged to Fritz Kreisler.

Here and there passages with unwelcome intonation and over biting bow puzzled. But it was speed that won out and that further triggered a continuing mismatch with the orchestra. The relationship of soloist and orchestra was confounding, most noticeably so at climatic points with the violin steering right into head on collisions with the orchestra.

Zimmerman’s encore was Bach’s popular Prelude from Partita for solo violin No. 3 in E major. Breakneck dazzle finally finished up with some slowing up and a cute ending.

Guest conductor Juanjo Mena, also caught under the spell of look how fast I can play, produced Schubert’s Symphony in C, “The Great” if not in record time, close to it.  “The Great” took its first real breath with truly expressive freshness from John Ferrillo’s oboe. Moving along at a fairly good clip, the BSO and Mena, one of Spain’s most distinguished international conductors, would eventually find themselves coalescing mid-movement. From then on, Schubert’s embrace of youthful spontaneity, winning tonal contrasts, and joyous grandeur exploded with a fired up BSO.

Juanjo Mena conducts Frank Peter Zimmerman (Stu Rosner photo)
Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin and Juanjo Mena, conductor  (Stu Rosner photo)

The following Andante con moto was made crisp, eventually morphing into marching. Completely engaging crispiness and quickness of tempo would not hold up, though, for the remainder of another lengthy movement. Schubert’s melodic hook wanted for more coaxing to stay alive after its much iteration. Somewhat of the same effect came about in the ensuing Scherzo, relief from overdrive was nowhere in sight.

Thankfully, the concert wound up on a high. An entirely exhilarating allegro vivace lifted the concert into a different sphere. Here, high velocity became fully justifiable. Every move spun out by the genius Schubert led to yet another build, which took yet another detour all of which could be felt as well as admired. This was marvelous, polished symphonic musing from both Mena and orchestra.

A thrilling trio of trombones (Toby Oft, Stephen Lange, and James Markey) throughout the symphony and this thrilling close would easily make for a fitting celebration of Boston’s longest serving and most beloved Major Menino—who would have been smiling.

Lastly, I do want to mention Mark DeVoto’s fine work, Schubert’s Great C Major: Biography of a Symphony (Pendragon Press) to those readers in search of scoops and more.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).


17 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. The symphony took 46 minutes. I checked the time. That puts in in the running against Karajan for shortest performance. I don’t think it was accomplished via the tempo, which did not seem to me particularly fast, but via the tried-and-true Karajan method of throwing huge chunks of what the composer wrote overboard. I think when a conductor tells the orchestra he wants to do this, he is more or less saying, “right, let’s get this old chestnut out of the way,” and the orchestra, for whom it is after all a demanding work, does not put up much of a struggle. I enjoyed it, because it was one of my favorite works played by one of my favorite orchestras, but when it was over I ended up thinking of I review I once read of a recording of the Great C Major by the Vienna Philharmonic under Riccardo Muti: “this is an orchestra that can play this symphony in its sleep, and on this occasion apparently did.”

    Comment by SamW — November 1, 2014 at 12:00 pm

  2. I’m not sure what SamW meant by “throwing huge chunks overboard.” If he meant omitting indicated repeats, Mena omitted those of the first-movement exposition, of the da-capo section of the Scherzo, and of the last-movement exposition. Toscanini/Philadelphia (RCA) and Szell/Cleveland (Epic, now Sony) do the same. They clock in at just under 46′ and just under 45′, respectively. Recalling Furtwangler, it’s astonishing how different are the performances that this symphony can support.

    We found Mena’s Friday performance to be rhythmically alert, light on his feet, and delightful — what Gramophone Magazine calls “sprung”; the orchestra was superb. Also on Friday there was no lack of coordination in the Sibelius. The performance brought out how dark is the accompaniment compared to the solo, except for those explosions of brass and timpani.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — November 1, 2014 at 1:46 pm

  3. Notable to me also on Thursday was how the Sibelius sounded ever so much more rehearsed than the Schubert, the former full of hushed, delicate darkness (quite the contrast to the rough work of Zimmermann, who you would never have guessed was playing a Strad), and the latter with half its ensemble entrances, and elsewhere, slightly stuttered.

    Comment by David Moran — November 1, 2014 at 4:02 pm

  4. Abbado observes all the repeats and takes 62 minutes, although he also restores some bars that were chopped out by Brahms. Mackerras takes an hour in one recording and 55 minutes in another. Harnoncourt takes 59 minutes. Solti takes 55. None of these are slow-paced recordings. Even Furtwängler takes 56.

    I don’t know whether there is a record of what cuts Mendelssohn made in his performance (Mark DeVoto might know), but we do have one witness’s testimony as to how long it lasted, because it was reviewed, and the reviewer said that “it lasted in its entirety for 5 minutes less than an hour”. He then went on to say that if the the supremely talented and popular composer had lived, he certainly would have shortened it, thus getting in early on the long tradition of condescending to Schubert in the act of praising him.

    The most durable part of this tradition concerns the length of Schubert’s works. Time after time we are told that the composer’s indications are not to be taken seriously, mere convention, as if he habitually added a couple of dots before every barline without thinking. Whole chunks of actual music are excised on the grounds that they are mere filler, “inessential”, “uncharacteristic”. Alfred Brendel proudly defends skipping the exposition repeat in the B flat sonata, and with it the transition that Schubert wrote, by saying “I am particularly happy to miss those transitional bars, so utterly unconnected is their jerky outburst to the entire movement’s logic and atmosphere.” Brendel argues that he is only disregarding “fashionable belief”, which makes the composer, unlike the performer, a mere creature of fashion.

    The claim that the length of these works is due merely to habit and convention does not hold up under consideration of the many ways in which they are long. It is not just a matter of repeats. A movement like the finale of the E flat piano trio demonstrates that Schubert could be truly tireless in the matter of invention, and saw no need to make the music stop while it still had somewhere to go. Most of the late works are like this to some degree. The greatest, like the B flat sonata, the string quintet, and the Great C major symphony, are designed with these huge spaces in mind, and shortening them is like building a cathedral on three-quarters of the area of its foundation. In work after work Schubert made it clear that this was what he really wanted, but was not believed; critics and conductors pat him on the shoulder, and turn away, and confidently disregard his instructions.

    There is one flaw that runs through all of Schubert’s work; again and again he falls into the error of thinking that he is composing for an audience that loves music as much as he does.

    Comment by SamW — November 1, 2014 at 5:26 pm

  5. None of us can know if Mena was unhappy with the opening Schubert performance’s lack of tight ensemble, but tonight, Saturday over the air, as I type, it seems some wholly other piece, with everything in perfect position, attack and timing and synchrony. What a feat.

    SW’s worthy repeats rant is fascinating, although all of us music-lovers should remember that his splendid last clause applies to any number of composers the more private the language, from Bach and Beethoven to Boulez and Carter and beyond.

    Comment by David Moran — November 1, 2014 at 10:03 pm

  6. Rant is harsh. Call it a half-rant. It was meant to be a rant, but I had to leave for the Goode recital.

    By the way, when I said “every barline” I meant “every double bar-line”; a repeat of every bar is rarely called for.

    Comment by SamW — November 1, 2014 at 10:57 pm

  7. A bit of a curate’s egg on Saturday. There were things to like about the orchestral playing as such, but it seemed that Mena wasn’t completely on top of the soloist’s notes– there were a handful of barlines that didn’t quite arrive on time. And while Zimmerman went so far as to play some of the Tutti passages with first AND second violins, there were whole stretches in the opening where I thought he wasn’t thinking about the rhythm underneath him.

    For the Schubert, there was much to like and a few things to question. I felt the tempos got better and better as everything went on– mostly from the second movement. Whether that was my intermission tea kicking in slowly, I don’t know. But the introduction seemed a shade too fast to communicate much drama, and while the first movement’s tempo was about right, if could have used a bit more breathing room. Mena’s face and gestures showed that he was feeling all of the color changes and character of the solos, but it wasn’t being projected behind him. (At least he didn’t follow Michael Steinberg’s crazy notion that the Andante and the Allegro ma non Troppo are supposed to be identical.)

    The second movement was much better– almost a perfect tempo, with, again, just a bit more room needed to make it sing. The cello entrance that starts it, for example, was mechanical-sounding, and not the sung introduction that it might have been, from the cranky uncle as he heads off stage and leaves the rest to the oboe.

    Tempos were really great in the last two movements. It just felt a little muddy in spots. Perhaps Mena’s conducting from memory caused him to pay less attention to detail, but while there were many places that were beautifully balanced and very effective, there were others that were covered by just a smidgen of soup in the strings. A smaller section (and harder sticks for the timpani) might have tidied it up. Or maybe Mena just wasn’t rehearsing certain things really hard. There was a spot in the scherzo when the violins got ahead of the bassoons, and John Ferrillo could be seen giving downbeats with his head before his entrance. Whether that was to help the people behind him or so that he did not confused and miss his own entrance, I don’t know.

    A few notes about the cello section, as I was sitting almost over them. Mena occasionally gave them decent attention in the last 2 movements, and there were some really nice moments brought out that you don’t always hear, such as some canons with the 1st violins. On the other hand in the 2nd movement, apart from not getting a chance to breathe in the first few bars, their big countermelody didn’t come out of the texture at all. Many conductors don’t stress that line, but ever since I heard Toscanini/PO/1941, I’ve come to look forward to it.

    Zimmerman’s Bach was fun. Not perfect, as there were a few transitions that didn’t make total sense, and a few things he missed out on– as in the first bar of the coda, which nearly quotes the opening. Also the first 3-voice bariolage was a little sloppy, and there were a few mistuned notes about a third of the way in. BUT— when he got around to the second statement of all that material, it rang like a bell.
    And his ending bar was a little unconventional tonight, but worth thinking about. After all, while Bach uses that movement to display a lot of carnival barker rhetoric inviting the crowds in, and the coda tells you pretty firmly that you’re in E Major, the last bar never quite seems to seal the deal. So maybe it really is meant to go straight into the Loure. Or maybe that’s lurching too close to Schenker to make sense.

    Comment by Camilli — November 1, 2014 at 11:10 pm

  8. I heard the Tuesday evening concert (originally we were supposed to go Thursday, but all it took was well-timed food poisoning to turn those plans to gas – haha). I am still in a state of shock and euphoria over the performance of Schubert’s 9th last night by Juanjo Mena. OMG–it was UNBELIEVABLE!

    I will admit that I had seen the reviews and all the comments on here, and had resigned myself to a hyper performance of a work that I figured would disappoint, because to my ears Schubert’s 9th needs space to breathe to work its magic (particularly in the first two movements). But I was in for a shock–Mena gave us an over-the-top, incredible performance that made me hear the work in a way I’d never heard it before. It was a truly great, great performance, and by far the best I’ve ever heard of this symphony.

    What distinguished this amazing performance was its incredible sense of rhythm, its drive, and a propulsiveness that was irresistible and hard to not get caught up in. The orchestra played their hearts out and gave Mena everything he wanted. I could hear every single gesture from Mena in the music, and none of his work on the podium was for show. I heard spatiality in the music that I’ve never heard before, with incredible detail that I never knew existed (in past performances a lot of this symphony has always sonically come across as one homogenous orchestral lump–not in this performance though!). Yet none of the detail came at the expense of the line that ran through the interpretation. The phrasing was superb and a means to an end. Everything that transpired happened for a greater purpose, and the cumulative effect was absolutely overwhelming. I’ve never heard this work conducted so vibrantly and so alive in my life, and am comparing this performance to live performances I’ve heard conducted by Muti (in Philadelphia), Rattle, Levine, Ozawa, Haitink, and others. This was, BY FAR, the best. In what has already been a tremendous BSO season that has exceeded any expectations I could have had for it, this performance was the very best yet.

    Hats off to the BSO–they truly outdid themselves last night. Has anyone else noticed the consistently outstanding level that the orchestra has been playing at of late? They seem to be going from strength to even greater strength. It’s hard to imagine that there are any more than 2-3 orchestras in the world playing at this level, and they are almost certainly limited to the Vienna Philharmonic and the Concertgebouw.

    I commented to my partner last night when we were leaving that I suspected Juanjo Mena was likely a formidable conductor of Bruckner’s music based on what I heard. Having basically never heard of Mena before this concert (I’d heard his name, but not any performances or an awareness of his repertory), when I got home I googled his name with the name Bruckner to see what came up. Sure enough, what I learned was beyond illuminating.

    In an online interview with Michael Cookson, Mena mentions that Bruckner is his favorite composer. I was not aware that Mena had trained under Celidibache in Munich–which explains much about his love of Bruckner and even his approach, which he describes in the interview (which is a great article for anyone interested in this conductor):

    And then it all hit me: What we heard last night was Schubert’s 9th as filtered through Bruckner. Mena played the orchestra like a giant organ as Bruckner did, and rather than creating the homogenous blocks of sound that I’m used to hearing in this symphony, what we instead heard was the Bruckner approach, which is to play off sections of the orchestra against each other to contrast the sound and create a distinctive effect. Hence the spatiality of what I heard, and the detail that never obscured the line. The more I thought about it, the more brilliant I realized that the performance was–and at the time I thought it was one of the greatest performances of anything I’ve ever heard in my lifetime!

    I really, really, really want to hear more of Juanjo Mena. I hope the BSO will let him conduct some Bruckner here in Boston. I know that Nelsons intends to program Bruckner more often than has been in the past; hopefully he will give the opportunity to other conductors to also be the ones to play it. And there are none higher on my list that I want to hear performing Bruckner than Juanjo Mena.

    Thank you, BSO, for such a great concert. This one is one I will never forget. Does anyone know if there’s any way to get a recording of it?

    Comment by Mogulmeister — November 5, 2014 at 3:13 pm

  9. One question for all of you: Who was playing timpani last night during Schubert’s 9th? It wasn’t Tim Genis, but I didn’t see another name listed in the program book. He also played during Nielsen’s 4th a few weeks ago. He’s *superb* and I thought his playing last night added a dimension to the Schubert that was magnificent.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — November 5, 2014 at 4:07 pm

  10. >> Does anyone know if there’s any way to get a recording of it?

    It may show up here presently, and presumably not the Thurs rendition:

    If it does, you would have to figure out how to do the online stream copying, naturally.

    Comment by David Moran — November 5, 2014 at 5:30 pm

  11. What Camilli refers to as “Michael Steinberg’s crazy notion” may be crazy, but it isn’t unique to him, and is shared by quite a few others, including Charles Mackerras, Charles Rosen, and (arguably) Robert Schumann. The point is not that the music does not speed up, but that it is accelerated by diminishing note values and increasing the number of accents per bar, not by changing the underlying pulse. This has a wonderful effect; we are in a slow meditative stroll, becalmed, and then we are striding forward at a vigorous clip, without knowing how we made the transition. Robert Schumann describes it like this: ”Brilliantly novel, too, is the transition to the Allegro; we are aware of no change of tempo, but suddenly without knowing how, we have arrived.” Mackerras performs it this way, and it is fascinating.

    Comment by SamW — November 5, 2014 at 8:18 pm

  12. Is this not also what Beethoven sorta does famously in op 110?

    Comment by David Moran — November 5, 2014 at 10:32 pm

  13. In fact it’s in the context of a description of this practice in Op. 110 in The Classical Style that Rosen brings in Schubert’s symphony for comparison.

    Comment by SamW — November 5, 2014 at 11:38 pm

  14. Oops, thanks; gotta go return to my weekly Rosen and Steinberg studies :).

    Schumann’s comment is something.

    Rosen once told me (and I don’t mean to sound like Denk) that anytime I was in question about latest best performance practices and informed approaches, just go listen to however Mackerras handles it.

    Comment by david moran — November 6, 2014 at 1:06 am

  15. Rosen gives other Beethoven examples, from the third piano concerto and from Op. 111, in the introduction of which the low base trill is written out in thirty-second notes in the last measure of the Maestoso and in sixteenth notes in the first two measures of the Allegro, thus linking the tempos quite explicitly. He is illustrating that this kind of tempo relationship was traditional at the time, and is characteristic of the classical style. In Schubert’s symphony, a big fat accelerando would be the Romantic way to handle the transition, but Schubert belonged to an earlier tradition.

    Comment by SamW — November 6, 2014 at 9:02 am

  16. To clarify, I don’t object at all to a mathematical relationship between the andante and allegro– unity is good, and an obvious gear change is unnecessary. But you don’t need identical tempo to make it work effectively, as there are a lot of other relationships that will work. As an example, there was a record reviewer for the ARG who once complained that Toscanini took the Trio of Beethoven 7th at the same tempo as the Scherzo. Now, Artie did take it quickly, and there wasn’t an abrupt change in mood, but what he did was actually pretty close to what Beethoven asked for: 132 in the Scherzo and 84 in the Trio. 1.5:1, more or less. Unified, yes, even to the point of fooling an unattentive listener. Identical, no.

    What I was referring to in the post above was the notion of trying to play the 8th-note triplets of the intro and the quarter-note triplets of the main part of the movement at an identical pace. There’s at least one conductor who’s tried that (having used Steinberg’s language), with indifferent results.

    Comment by Camilli — November 6, 2014 at 12:29 pm

  17. To answer Mogulmeister’s query sbove:
    The timpanist in the Schubert (and the Nielsen) was Daniel Bauch.
    He is listed in the BSO program book as Assistant Timpanist (under the “Percussion” heading).
    And yes, he is superb.

    Comment by Brian Bell — November 7, 2014 at 10:36 am

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