in: Reviews

November 20, 2015

Tragic, Transcendent Bach, Berg, DSCH


James C. S Liu photo

James C. S Liu photo

Master violinist Isabelle Faust joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for a revelatory program of Bach’s motet “Komm, Jesu, Komm” with “Es ist genug,” the final chorale of the Cantata BWV 60, Berg’s Violin Concerto, and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.  BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons gave a brief speech before the Thursday concert began, linking the horrific terrorist strikes of the last week to the journey of tragedy and transcendence in the Berg and Shostakovich, and hoping that the sanctuary of Bach would offer hope and inspiration in troubled times.  The orchestra delivered tragedy, transcendence, and inspiration in abundance.

The entire orchestra assembled on stage along with members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus from the beginning, but for the J.S. Bach motet, “Komm, Jesu, Komm,” BWV 229, only the chorus sang with a basso continuo part.  (From my seat, I couldn’t see who was playing, but it sounded like a lone chamber organ.)  They shifted gears ably from double chorus call-and-response in verse 1 of Paul Thymich’s poem, to extended arioso melisma in verse 2, and to the chorale setting of verse 3.  The German diction was clear, separation of the double chorus and individual lines was good, and dynamic control was exemplary.  After the motet, violinist Isabelle Faust walked quietly and without applause onto the stage, taking the soloist’s spot and listening as the chorus sang “Es ist genug.”  This chorale harmonization closes Bach’s Cantata BWV 60, which is a dialogue between Fear and Hope. The cantata opens with a whole tone scale, spelling out a dissonant tritone in its first four notes, and its irregular phrase structure and chromatic harmonies generate a sense of instability, redeemed at the end by an acceptance of death.  (Visit here for more on how Bach alters the original Lutheran hymn tune for this setting.)

The four-note whole tone scale of the chorale forms the last four notes of the tone row that forms the core of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, and the chorale tune and harmonization emerge to form the base of the second half of the second movement.  Nelsons made a striking effect by moving directly without pause from the hushed pianissimo ending of the chorale to the start of the concerto.  Faust, petite with a pale pixie haircut, dressed in flowing trousers and a sculptural gray-green tunic that swayed with her movements. The clothes suited Faust’s style – she didn’t put on the flashy, oversized tone of many a violin superstar, but chose a measured tone with a steely core that cut through BSO brass outbursts that have swamped over many a lesser musician.  She had technique to burn, making Berg’s fiendishly difficult leaps, rhythmic variation, and frequent triple stopping sound fluid and effortless.  Faust deployed her technical skills cunningly, using different bow speeds, thickness of bow on strings, and dynamics to inflect each of the separate motifs that generate Berg’s structure, and giving thoughtful shape to Berg’s phrases. The differentiated phrases and recognizable melodic shapes rendered clarity to the inflections that Berg made on small motifs to create the greater structure.

Nelsons and the BSO, for their parts, deployed a wide dynamic palette, but accompanied Faust attentively, mirroring Faust’s phrasing and bringing out the exchanges of phrases between soloist and orchestra.  They blended when the violinist joined the group (as in one point when she played in unison with the BSO first violins), and partnered beautifully, most notably in an unlikely but gorgeous violin-trombone duet between Faust and BSO principal Tony Oft.

The orchestra’s moments alone were sumptuously played and balanced, and the wind section delivered the Bach chorale harmonization with stunning point and balance.  It was large-scale chamber music of the highest order, and soloist and orchestra played with deep, passionate commitment, making a gripping narrative from Berg’s twelve-tone permutations.  For many years, the musical Luddite in me has not managed to grasp the depths and beauties of Berg’s Violin Concerto despite trying multiple recordings.  This performance, with its gorgeous, shimmering, but barely audible ending, transported its audience into the realm of the sublime.  It opened my ears, and garnered well earned cheers from the crowd.

Berg’s Violin Concerto was inscribed “To the Memory of an Angel,” as it was inspired by the death of Manon Gropius, the 18 year old universally adored daughter of Alma Mahler. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in d minor Op. 47 was completed within a year of the Berg, at the height of Josef Stalin’s Great Terror.  During the intermission and after the concert, the BSO tied these tragedies and struggles to current events by projecting the blue, white, and red of the French tricolor on the organ facade.

The BSO returned with a  committed performance of the symphony.  The orchestra articulated Shostakovich’s phrases with fiercely articulated precision.  The full orchestra deployed an even more impressive dynamic range than in the Berg, shattering at the climaxes, but gorgeously hushed, as in the second subject of the first movement.  Sections balanced each other beautifully, making it easy to hear the textures in odd instrumental combinations like piano, bass strings and brass in the three-beat march of the first movement, the haunting trio between flutist Elizabeth Rowe and horn James Somerville, the eerie hushed duet between piccolo Cynthia Myers and contrabassoon Gregg Henegar that closes the first movement, and another stunning trio of harpist Jessica Zhou with flutists Rowe and Elizabeth Ostling in the start of the third movement.

Isabelle-Faust and Andris Nelsons (Liza Voll)

Isabelle Faust and Andris Nelsons (Liza Voll)

The narrative current that swept through the Berg continued in the Shostakovich.  I have heard recordings of this symphony where the transitions between sections have sounded jolting or unprepared; here subtle gradations of tempo and dynamic made the joins seamless and every new moment spring organically from the previous one.  The orchestra mastered the range of moods in the symphony, from the tragedy of the first movement, the sardonic and savage “Totenwalz” (waltz of death, if you will) of the scherzo, the keening Russian Requiem of the slow movement, and the transition from despondency to blaze of triumph of the finale.

For that infamous finale, which some commenters think is an almost parodied, hysterical, forced triumphal march, Nelsons took a page from conductor Mstislav Rostropovich’s playbook, playing the final moments at a surprisingly stately, measured tempo.  This put timpanist Timothy Genis on display, and he came through with powerhouse drumming which had visceral impact, but kept the notoriously fickle drums in tune with the orchestra.  Perhaps that finale is overblown, but the emergence of light from darkness seemed to be exactly what the tragedy-fatigued audience needed, and the orchestra was showered with enthusiastic applause.

Nelsons is now eight weeks into his first extended residency with the orchestra.  They have collaborated on a broad range of repertoire, including two Shostakovich symphonies, and last night’s results were a stunning triumph.  Buy, beg, borrow, or steal tickets if you can; the program repeats this morning at 11 a.m. and Saturday, November 21 at 8 p.m.  The concert will also be broadcast on WCRB-FM on Saturday, November 21 and Monday, November 30, and on the station’s website. Nelsons has one more program next week, flanking the Thanksgiving holiday with Haydn’s Symphony #30, Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Yefim Bronfman, and Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony.

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


  1. Symphony Hall organ was played by John Finney.

    Comment by Laurie Otten — November 20, 2015 at 1:04 pm

  2. The chorus was accompanied in both Bach pieces by John Finney on the main Symphony Hall organ. It’s a testament to his skill and taste, and to the versatility of the big Aeolian-Skinner instrument, that it “sounded like a lone chamber organ.”

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — November 20, 2015 at 1:09 pm

  3. Just wondering: does Maestro Nelsons ever do a program that does NOT end in the kind of wallop guaranteed to bring him a huge ovation?

    Comment by Dan Farber — November 21, 2015 at 11:48 am

  4. He is conducting Mahler’s 9th in the spring. I guess it depends on your definition of “wallop”.

    Comment by SamW — November 21, 2015 at 12:11 pm

  5. Evidently Maestro Nelsons is a superb conductor — I don’t consider myself competent to judge — and he is packing the audiences in. The recent concerts with other conductors has many more empty seats along the right side of the balconies than the ones Nelsons has conducted — even though the works programmed didn’t seem more challenging than Bach, Berg, and Shostakovich.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 21, 2015 at 2:07 pm

  6. Question: “Just wondering: does Maestro Nelsons ever do a program that does NOT end in the kind of wallop guaranteed to bring him a huge ovation?”

    Answer: Of course – his very first regular subscription concert as the BSO’s music director ended with the Tchaikovsky 6th, and he’ll lead the Mahler 9th this spring, as SamW pointed out. The former brought a huge ovation, and I guarantee that the latter will, too.

    I find the question strange, though, and for two reasons. First, Andris Nelsons seems drawn to such pieces – there have been several others in his programs thus far with the BSO and other orchestras. And, when they finish he’s particularly keen on sustaining the silence. I don’t recall seeing any other conductor elongate it to his extent – for example, at least 20 seconds (!) after the Berg violin concerto that concluded the first half of last night’s program.

    Second, isn’t the claim to be “just wondering” disingenuous? After all, the question sounds to me like an insinuation: Nelsons is an applause hound. But isn’t the opposite true? Ask just about anybody in this organization or others – players, artistic director, administration – and I think you’ll find that Mr. Nelsons is universally regarded as being all about the music and the musicians. His manner on the podium and off is striking for its humility and appreciation for the players – he was one himself, after all. In one widely noted instance, for example, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra acknowledged his superb leadership in the Brahms 2nd by refusing to stand with him during a prolonged ovation…so Nelsons sat down on the podium.

    One last observation: composers for classical orchestra have traditionally, if not exclusively, strived to bring their works to forceful, emphatic resolutions. Is Mr. Farber aware of that? Just wondering…

    Comment by nimitta — November 22, 2015 at 10:00 am

  7. Many observers seem to have come to the conclusion that Nelsons’ extremely expressive behavior on the podium is for the sake of the audience, and thus that he is a ham and an applause hound. I think this is a misunderstanding; Nelsons is doing everything in his power to communicate his visceral sense of the music to the orchestra, and only through the orchestra to the audience. In this he belongs to a tradition that includes many great conductors, including Ludwig van Beethoven. Of course there are many conductors who perform for the audience. Sometimes even the show of restraint can be a pose of grandeur – see H. Karajan.

    On the other hand I must admit that I would dearly love to see a split-screen Youtube video of Nelsons and Kurt Masur conducting the same work. It would be a laugh riot.

    Comment by SamW — November 22, 2015 at 11:02 am

  8. Ha!

    Comment by nimitta — November 22, 2015 at 11:09 am

  9. You may not “recall any other conductors who elongated the silence” to the extent that Maestro Nelsons does, but Benjamin Zander is, and James Levine was (while in Boston), scrupulous in their attempts to prolong the silence after pieces that end quietly. (No doubt there are others.) I am pleased to hear that Maestro Nelsons does as well. And, to answer your last question, yes: I am “aware” of the practices of “composers for classical orchestra”.

    Comment by Dan Farber — November 22, 2015 at 11:18 am

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