In our cultural hub one can can count on experiencing professional-level performances from conservatory orchestras, a point once again brought home by the exceptionally high level of execution delivered by the Boston Conservatory Orchestra at Sanders Theater on Sunday under the baton of Bruce Hangen. The conductor also deserves credit for assembling an ambitious and imaginative program of two big, mighty works: the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 and Aram Khachaturian’s Symphony No. 2. The Khachaturian, nicknamed the “Symphony With a Bell” for self-evident reasons, is quite a rarity, at least in this country. The BSO has never performed it, and its publisher points only to two US orchestras, both on the west coast, that have played it in the last ten years. The Brahms, while familiar enough, was the occasion for something else fairly unusual, a local concert appearance by pianist Michael Lewin, who, though he teaches and chairs the piano department at BoCo, doesn’t concertize here that often.
Brahms Concerto in D Minor is a sprawling product of the composer’s youth; its three movements routinely clock in at over 50 minutes, the same duration as Brahms’s four-movement second concerto. Hangen’s forces onstage were equally sprawling, calling forth a surprisingly large contingent of strings, as against a more standard complement of winds and brass. It being a primary function of conservatory orchestras to give their students performing opportunities, and since the string section is the one with the greatest flexibility in staffing, Hangen and his players were able to put forth, as needed—particularly in the slow movement—a succulently creamy string sonority; nevertheless, the balances among the choirs suffered, with strings covering winds in too many places.
Our issues with the performance were not predominantly technical. While the opening of the concerto with its fearsome drumroll and icy trills shot out like a fusillade, and conveyed great promise of a brisk, barreling-ahead reading, here as well as in many other places, the momentum sagged. Lewin, whose recordings show him to be a performer of poetic and Romantic sensitivity, was curiously rigid in his phrasing: it’s not often that we think a performer should use more rubato, but in this case, that’s what he should have done. The result was a series of well-executed passages that moved from one to another by sheer force of will or motor drive rather than through the inner dynamism guided by an architectural overview. That said, we did detect greater rhythmic flexibility, both from Lewin and Hangen, in the recapitulation, as well as some excellent playing by the horns. In the gorgeous sounding slow movement Lewin gave a lovely account of Brahms’s organically unfolding melodic line even though the tempo was slack to the point of stasis, and the great climax near the end lost some force through the boxiness of its phrasing. The finale began promisingly with zip and precision, but between that and the frenetic conclusion Hangen let the pace bog down. It’s fine to emphasize the contrasts between the driving principal theme and the more rhapsodic episodes, but forward momentum also needs to be maintained.
We were surprised to see the audience, respectably large considering the weather, thin out at intermission, as the chance to hear the Khachaturian should have been as much a draw as hearing Lewin. By the time the even more augmented forces assembled for the symphony (who knew so many people could fit on the Sanders stage, with an orchestral piano to boot?), there might have been more people on stage than in the auditorium. The decampers should have stayed, since, although the Khachaturian is far from a great work, it makes some impressive and beautiful noises, and got as good a performance as it probably could have. We understand that this is a piece Hangen has wanted to perform for many years; it was one of which its composer was proud, and it won all the prizes the Soviets could throw at it. Written in 1943 and premiered the following year, it was intended to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the October Revolution, but was also a big statement about World War II (it’s curious that while major Soviet composers were writing war symphonies while the war was in progress, their American counterparts, with the exception of Barber, waited a couple of years, as with the Copland Third).
Most Americans probably think of Khachaturian (1903-1978) as the composer of colorful ballets with an Armenian flavor, like Gayaneh (paradoxically, Khachaturian, the 20th century’s most famous Armenian composer, never lived in Armenia—the statue of him in Yerevan is his most durable presence there) and some colorfully inflected concertos (his violin concerto is still standard rep), his larger, more ambitious works remain largely unknown. Another incongruity is that he caught the same flak as Prokofiev and Shostakovich in 1948 for writing anti-proletarian “formalist” music, though he toed the party line in his music more than either of those others, and was about as thoroughgoing a product of the Soviet cultural factory as anyone with talent could be (though, in all fairness, the apparatchiks did finally get the memo: he was “rehabilitated” before the other two). His style in this symphony might be described as Shostakovich with the edges sanded smooth: the military and celebratory flourishes issue without irony. The use of Armenian or other Caucasian musical elements could be generic, or could reflect a more personal take on the sweeping musical and social events the symphony limns.
TheKatchaturian opens and ends with a motto motif, around which much of the 50-minute work’s music is built, blasted out on the bell (tubular chimes, actually) and the full orchestra. The main theme of the first movement is broad, regular and diatonic (the symphony’s key is E minor; the motto is E-G-sharp-F, with an octave displacement). As it moved through passages alternating frenzy and calm, Hangen did very well in giving each of these passages its due character. In particular, the lovely second subject’s rocking motif was rendered with both feeling and precise phrasing. The scherzo, whose affect seemed to waver between giddiness and horror, fares poorly in the inevitable comparison to that of the Shostakovich Eighth Symphony, written two years later, but features some brilliant writing for muted trumpets that got a splendid performance by the BCO’s trumpet section. The slow
movement is a funeral march with melodic nods to Armenia and hints of the Dies Irae (was this touch of Rachmaninoff a daring act in the Soviet Union?). Hangen kept its all-too-regular rhythms moving along as the movement built to a blazing restatement. The quiet ending transformed the tritonic oom-pah accompaniment of the march to a conventional I-V-I on harp, which, intentionally or not, made us expect the Frère Jacques/Bruder Martin theme from Mahler’s First Symphony. The finale begins with a fanfare leading to a broad (sorry to keep reusing that word, but that seems to be what true proletarian music requires) hymn-like tune to a rapid passagework accompaniment, which accompaniment then becomes the musical engine of the movement, along with another march figure in the basses. The writing becomes more emotionally complex here, but never as much so as Khachaturian’s younger and more ambivalent colleague Shostakovich. A return ensues to the symphony’s opening theme and the motto of the bell. Despite its frequent bombast and occasionally trite tropes, its brilliant orchestration and immensely loud climaxes must provide great fun. Hangen and his orchestra brought it off with great gusto.