Three meditations on organic existence and the search for meaning in the face of the infinite: From Jean-Frédérick Neuburger a world premiere offering a view of the mystery and terror of the dawn of life. From Bartok, a vitalist momentum in us that seeks to rise only to wilt, then finds a balance in the intuitive creative rhythms of human community. From Beethoven, a struggle between the artist and posterity, triggering a pure, unadulterated gratitude that overflows into an affirmation of life and human strength. All this at Symphony Hall on Thursday!
Like an emblem of personal creativity and collective gratitude, Neuburger’s Aube was commissioned by the BSO at Dohnányi’s request, with support from both public and private foundations. The 11-minute piece uses orchestration to provide structure to seemingly random sonic events, a revised form of musique concrète by way of Debussy’s colorism. Restrained, elegant, nuanced and engrossing, it began with a menacing rumble, then sheets of crescendos, followed by clock-like rhythms and culminating in a majestic horn call as a soft awakening. Evoking a cacophonic jungle of clashing, disproportionate forces, macro and micro forms searched for a way to coexist in a dark, dazzling space. The effect was mysterious and alien, like a primordial void (tohu va bohu) in which life emerges by testing inchoate possibilities. Reaching a peak in a piercing crescendo, stabilizing in tremors in the strings, evoking energy transfer and the beginning of symbiosis, the music then died away into rumblings, with a sudden brief appearance of magical sounds at the end. Neuburger was on hand to receive a warm reception from the crowd after the performance.
There is a baroque austerity to Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; its slow-fast-slow-fast format is reminiscent of a sonata da chiesa, and the tightly controlled architectural structure allows the musical ideas to blossom with a wild extravagance. For instance, the first movement is a slow fugue consisting almost entirely of subject entries, starting on A and moving alternately up and down the circle of fifths to climax fff at E-flat, continuing around in a slow diminuendo with the subject inverted. Dohnányi gave it a distinctive interpretation. Dohnányi took the first three movements at a moderate pace, imbuing the opening Andante tranquillo with a persistent, forceful sense of anxiety, soft and muted with celeste downplayed, building to a tense climax and then sliding back down to a soft fade, feeling like a loss of vital energy. The Allegro was dark and menacing, swirling slurs, slides and glissandos everywhere, anxious and nervous, near-panic amid the cacophony. A surprisingly slow trio section pizzicato, then a return of the Furies, somehow under control now. The “night music” Adagio was not threatening, but rather it evoked a mysterious, magical space, a view of the celestial at the periphery of the Universe and a working out of and release from anxiety, preparing nicely for a convincing emphasis on the final movement. The Allegro molto was joyous, lively and quick, evoking a great urban folklore in which intuitive personal rhythms coalesce into a complex entangled bank leading to frenzy and mania. The fugue subject returning pressed forward rather than upward, with pockets of exhaustion and lucid regret; at the end a determination to continue the dance, leading to a sudden collapse.
In the second half came a seeming world premiere. Beethoven’s E-flat Major Piano Concerto has, of course, been heard before, but this performance felt fresh and new, not at all like a “war horse”. Rather, it presented an exciting confrontation and subsequent mutual embrace between artist and collectivity. Starting in medias res with a brisk, forceful opening, orchestra and piano were fully equal in authority from the start. Helmchen’s playing was supple and fluid yet firm as he pressed the orchestra forward with urgency and energy in an agonistic relationship. The BSO sound was smooth and clean, the horn playing as beautiful as the piano’s. Helmchen shaped the dynamics elegantly within phrases, the soft passages particularly smooth and lyrical, as he delicately plucked the fire from Heaven to share it with us. The Adagio was hypnotic, meditative, gentle and ecstatic, becoming lively and swelling with bliss in the variations. An air of expectancy in the transition blossomed uncontainably into the joyous Rondo, piano and orchestra swept into mutual understanding and love, dancing together now in a celebration of life. Dohnanyi’s reading was strikingly not triumphalist; instead, the momentum grew out of an intense gratitude that brought together the mysterious joy of the creator (piano) with the yearning of the orchestra, their mutual need generating a wonderful concordance, Jacob and the Angel’s struggle now become a dance, “the only dance there is”. The audience and posterity approved the interpretation with a collective standing ovation and thunderous applause.