The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s reprised three familiar works at Sanders Theater on Thursday night. Call them Romantic warhorses if you wish, but in all three, the performances were exciting as well as precise. In every case they shed new light on old masters. Director Benjamin Zander, speaking before each piece, pointed to important aspects of each with good humor, as the orchestra illustrated with examples; for listeners hearing this music for the first time, the introduction was a good way to learn.
Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser reveals the 32-year-old composer, then director of the court opera in Dresden, already stretching the limits of orchestral virtuosity in Germany in 1845. The winds set the stately tone in the beginning, from the quiet clarinets and bassoons to the overpowering trombones, but it is the strings who have to work hardest after the first brilliant climax. The violins work in the upper register much of the time, with trills and tremolos as high as eighth position, to generate the high speed ethereal sound that dominates much of the texture. There is no getting around the significant structural flaw in this work—too much E major in a more or less uniformly agitated texture for nearly all of the last five minutes—but it has never impeded the popularity of this audience favorite. This execution was glass-smooth and warm in every dimension, especially in the strings, which maintained a strong unity of sound throughout, even in the last section where there is always a danger of raggedness at high speed. I especially admired the careful shaping that Zander gave to the melodic line. This reading was as bright and elegant as any I have heard in many years. And there were lovely solos, too, by Joanna Kurkowicz, concertmistress, and her stand partner, Yumi Okada.
Camille Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 33 (1872) is composed on the Mendelssohnian model of three connected movements in one, with some cyclic backward glances in the thematic structure—not such a stretch, since Saint-Saëns, as a child, actually heard Mendelssohn conduct. The triplet eighths in the first movement are reborn as semiquavers in the third, with a “slow movement” in between in which a minuet seems to transform effortlessly into a waltz. Jonah Ellsworth, who is now a junior at NEC, played the solo with fearless energy and a complete range of expressive richness. This concerto makes more prominent use of the lower strings, I think, than do many other concerti that feature upper-register expression on the A string, and it was good to hear the expressive resonance of the lower register carefully balanced with the orchestra. On the evidence of this fine performance, Ellsworth is certainly ready to be called a modern professional; he is an accomplished soloist, but he plays in the cello sections of both the BPO and the Youth Philharmonic, and he plays chamber music at Marlboro, and that adds up to a busy and enriching career.
Benjamin Zander gave a long spoken introduction before the performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, even though many in the audience, if not most, were already familiar with the program of this celebrated “Episode in the Life of an Artist.” This pathbreaking work, indeed constitutes one of the most visionary the canon, simultaneously marking the birth of the modern orchestra, the program symphony, and a new proclamation of the Romantic artist. Zander and many others have remarked that the Symphonie fantastique is “the first psychedelic symphony,” and it is easy enough to point to aspects of form, harmony, and orchestration in this work that are so radically original as to seem like madness in their historical context. One of the best-known examples is the “Shout of Joy” at the arrival of the Beloved at the Witches’ Sabbath in the fifth movement (m. 29, 13 bars after No. 62 in the score), with a tempo marking of Allegro assai, 76 to the whole note. Citing a detailed argument from a colleague who has closely studied the publication history of the Symphonie fantastique, Zander mentioned persuasive evidence that this metronome marking is twice as fast as Berlioz intended—it is Allegro assai, after all, not Allegro vivace—and very likely the result of an engraver’s error. But even more convincing than this testimony was the performance itself. The continuity of different tempi in the finale was fully logical and understandable after the adjustment that Zander demonstrated. I would not be surprised to see it accepted in most performances everywhere from now on.
But this description hardly begins to summon the BPO’s loving performance. It took a few minutes to coalesce into a well-unified sound in the first movement (“Reveries; Passions”); perhaps because the orchestra wasn’t used to playing a lot of excerpts as illustrations right before getting down to the main event. But all the required energy was present when the Allegro agitato ed appassionato assai began, and it was needed, because the first movement accounts for at least half the titer of insanity in the whole symphony. It is a wonderfully fragmented and reassembled sonata form, with complete unpredictability of events from one moment to the next, and an explosive range of dynamics and expression marks. From then on to the end of the symphony, everything was totally controlled, and this would have been as Berlioz intended, as we know not only from his meticulously marked score (the first orchestral score ever to specify the number of strings playing, as well as so much else) but from his lifelong example as an expert orchestral conductor—at a time when nearly all of the best-known conductors, those very men who developed the art of conducting, were composers. The second movement, “A Ball,” is an orchestral waltz rahter in advance of those of Lanner and Johann Strauss, but no less Schubertian for all that; this outing included the added part for cornet, a valved instrument that Berlioz didn’t have available in 1830 but that he regularly chose in later years. The third movement “Scene in the Fields,” is the most Beethoven-like part of the symphony, not just because of the F major resemblances to Beethoven’s “Pastoral” but also because the succession of ideas is most meticulously (it’s not an exaggeration to say “sanely” in this context) worked out. Yet the distant thunder at the end, on four solo timpani played by four players, is an oneiric adumbration of the downbeat of the “March to the Scaffold” that follows, with throbbing timpani, bass drum, and scary plucked divided basses. In the “Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath,” everything is a wild ride not to Hell but in Hell, notwithstanding the C major. I didn’t see any tubular bells anywhere, and I think the ones we heard were synthetic. The col legno at no. 83 didn’t really work; col legno battuto almost never does unless at least a few bow hairs are allowed to touch the string so that there will be some tone, and Berlioz’s notation is unrealistic unless there is at least some up-and-down motion.
But these are small quibbles. The overall momentum was irresistible, and Zander almost danced. The audience leaped to its feet afterward. There were a lot of bows for individuals in the orchestra, and a special one for Thomas Hill, principal clarinet, who is retiring after 28 years.