in: Reviews

November 26, 2015

Holiday Refreshment from BSO

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An extraordinary thing happened at Symphony Hall Tuesday night: the BSO under Andris Nelsons performed a standard, three-work mixed-repertory concert entirely sans warhorse. Instead, the audience was treated to early Haydn, early Tchaikovsky, and not-late Bartók. Refreshing!

Before any of this got going, though, the orchestra took note of the recent passing of former concertmaster and long-time eminence of the Boston musical scene, Joseph Silverstein. In his memory, the orchestral strings performed the Aria from the Bach Orchestral Suite No. 3, the famous “Air on the G String.” While this was not part of the scheduled program and, of necessity, was hastily arranged, it would be remiss not to comment on the delicacy of Nelsons’s phrasing and dynamic control.

The program proper opened with Haydn’s Symphony No. 30 in C major, the Alleluia, so called because the principal (well, really the only) theme of the first movement derives from a Gregorian setting of that phrase. The BSO has only performed this once before, under Seiji Ozawa. Today, of course, to have composed 30 symphonies would be considered somewhat freakish—only Havergal Brian and Alan Hovhaness spring to mind as having gotten that far. But Haydn’s 30th was an early, almost experimental work, retaining the 3-movement structure of the Baroque overture or sinfonia and ending with a minuet. The music itself is wonderful, with Haydn subverting the essentially monothematic first movement by creating a contrasting tune from snippets of the main one (its similarity to Leroy Anderson’s Syncopated Clock had more than one of the players smiling as they played it), and the closing minuet deftly carried melodic lines through the barline, supposedly something Haydn never did.

Apparently, as an afterthought Haydn added parts for trumpets and tympani to the small complement of strings, with pairs of oboes, horns and bassoons and a single flute (delightfully performed Tuesday, with solo flourishes in the slow movement, by Clint Foreman); these parts seem not to have survived, though other ensembles have attempted to reconstruct them. Nelsons chose not to do so, which of course dulled the sound somewhat. More pertinently, though, having the BSO essay early Haydn gives it the opportunity to demonstrate versatility and an ability to show how modern instruments can achieve the lightness and delicacy appropriate to works of this period. Sadly, despite brisk tempi and the virtuoso dynamic modulation that seems to be a Nelsons hallmark, we were left unpersuaded. For one thing, the string section was just too big and it overpowered the limited winds. For another, the strings did not constrain their vibrato in a manner appropriate to the period, resulting in a somewhat sludgy sonority. Bottom line, H&H needn’t worry about competition from its big brother in its core repertoire.

The next piece up was in most respects something completely different. Yefim Bronfman was on hand to spearhead a bone-rattling rendition of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Sz. 95. This is a crackerjack of a piece, written to give the composer another virtuoso vehicle as a pianist, after touring around for four years with his first concerto, which elevated him into the ranks of the bad-boy composers of the ‘20s. For the second concerto, he dialed back a bit on the avant-garde factor (a trend that basically continued throughout the rest of his life) but doubled down on the virtuoso factor (he later sheepishly admitted that the piano part was “rather difficult”), which may account for its failure to win a place in standard repertory commensurate with that of the Concerto No. 3.

The Symphony Hall stage now chock-a-block with musicians, the concerto got a rattling good start, with the clattering first movement scored for piano, winds and percussion. The affect, as well as the key, share some similarities with Ravel’s contemporaneous G major concerto, though without the latter’s jazz influences. Bronfman threw himself into the fray, smudging a few bits but full of raw percussive energy (one is put in mind of Judith Weir’s droll remark that the 19th century piano concerto is best thought of as a branch of the martial arts, a characteristic well continued by practitioners like Bartók). Nelsons, for his part, was unconstrained by the necessity of discreet deference, and let the orchestral fireworks shower on the hall (everybody in the back rows of the orchestra deserved their curtain calls).

As per the system Bartók began developing with his middle string quartets, this concerto exhibits the arch shape, with the first and third movements musically and expressively linked, while the central movement formed its own arch of two hymnodic, almost hypnotic, slow sections for piano, strings and percussion (their sound world, whose performance displayed exquisite dynamic control, often foreshadowed that of the sonata for two pianos and percussion) surrounding a wild presto center with a piano part like finger exercises composed by Torquemada. The finale hammered itself home—tympanist Timothy Genis earned his paycheck on this one, and probably had enormous fun doing so—until the incongruously chipper, and perhaps jesting, closing bars. A great piece, performed with panache and conviction. On a gentler note, Bronfman played his own tribute to Silverstein, the serene Romance from Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien.

Andris Nelsons Haydn (Winslow Townson photo)

Andris Nelsons Haydn (Winslow Townson photo)

It’s hard to think that anything by Tchaikovsky doesn’t qualify as a warhorse, but his first three symphonies do not get that much play. In the case of the Symphony No. 1 in G minor, op. 13, that’s a pity, since it displays many of Tchaikovsky’s virtues without excessive quantities of his vices. His teacher, Nicolai Rubinstein, suggested he write it, and then, depending on the sources you read, either helpfully or viciously critiqued it afterwards. Also depending on the sources you read, its premiere was either a smashing success or a fiasco. Tchaikovsky gave it and its first movement the subtitle “Winter Daydreams,” while the second movement got the sobriquet “Land of Desolation, Land of Mists”; the scherzo (curiously, the only movement that struck us as particularly wintry, with outer sections like a festive sleigh-ride) and finale had to live without titles. The finale also features a genuine Russian folk tune, while much of the other melodic material in the symphony folk-like in character.

The generous and masterful performance by Nelsons and the BSO was characterized—as usual— by tight dynamic control and perfectly shaped shading, suggesting that Nelsons considered the whole piece to be about a progression of climaxes. This was especially true in the slow movement, whose essentially monothematic structure (a brief opening and closing theme is practically vestigial in contrast to the large central section) built by nearly infinitesimal degrees to a glowing and suave statement in the horns. One can sometimes listen to this movement and find one’s attention wandering, but Nelsons’s leadership here was riveting. The trio of the scherzo is one of Tchaikovsky’s patented “valses tristes,” smooth and melancholy. The finale was broadly presented, with a grand statement of the folk melody before it is transformed into the allegro principal theme. Even more than in the first movement, the young Tchaikovsky fell into the trap of mistaking bustling fugal passages for true symphonic development, but Nelsons kept them all bubbling, until the composer was overcome with indecision leading to an unintentionally funny case of Beethovenitis. After all, why settle for just one closing cadence when fifteen come to mind? Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but what’s Tchaikovsky without exaggeration? At any rate, the orchestra delivered it with gusto and the courage of the composer’s many convictions. A very solid and persuasive performance overall.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

7 Comments

  1. Today, of course, to have composed 30 symphonies would be considered somewhat freakish—only Havergal Brian and Alan Hovhaness spring to mind as having gotten that far.

    You’re forgetting Leif Segerstam and his c.300 symphonies (to date!)…

    Comment by Chris L — November 27, 2015 at 11:55 am

  2. I just listened to the stream audio of the Tchaikovsky First Symphony. Nelsons is proving to me mostly what I thought when I first heard him two years ago — a “slow” conductor. He’s much too young to lead with such heavy phrasing and soggy tempi. He should wait until he’s 90. Right now, show some fire, bro!

    Comment by Don Drewecki — December 7, 2015 at 2:14 pm

  3. I’ll have to catch a listen for the stream. Live in the hall, he left no such impression.

    Comment by Camilli — December 8, 2015 at 3:31 pm

  4. “Nelsons is proving to me mostly what I thought when I first heard him two years ago — a “slow” conductor.”

    Hmmm. No such impression in the hall (or elsewhere) for me either, Camilli.

    I’d call this a textbook case of confirmation bias. After all, a spacious tempo here or there is hardly ‘proof’ of anything, especially when interspersed with some of the most pulse-pounding tempi we’ve heard in Boston lately. I wonder if the commenter had the good fortune to enjoy the recent Shostakovich 5th symphony, or the Bartók 2nd piano concerto. How about the Tchaikovsky 5th Andris Nelsons conducted in his first BSO appearance at Symphony Hall in February, 2013, or last season’s Miraculous Mandarin, Shostakovich 10 and Bruckner 7?

    This is not to say that a wonderfully flexible, in-the-moment conductor like Nelsons doesn’t occasionally bask un po ‘troppo in the details, as when conducting the Siegfried Idyll in October, 2013. It hardly defines him, though – in fact, he sometimes expands the pulse to underscore the contrast with rapid sections, as in the 1st movement of Evgeny Kissin’s recent Tchaikovsky 1st piano concerto.

    So, to my ears at least, there’s been plenty of fire, bro!

    Comment by nimitta — December 8, 2015 at 4:07 pm

  5. I had the chance to hear him do the Mahler 6 and 8 at Tanglewood, and while I liked the M8 a lot I felt the M6 was often slow and delicate, too. I don’t like DSCH’s music so I avoided his performances of those symphonies. It’s just how he’s adding up to me right now, with no preconceived notions other than that I don’t subscribe to the slower-is-more-profound school. You can be fast and urgent and deeply profound, too.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — December 8, 2015 at 5:14 pm

  6. The stream is (presumably) a recording of Saturday night, so Friday afternoon might not replicate.
    Tchaikovsky 1 can seem slow/tedious because of the interminable repetition; that was my impression. As for systematic slow tempos, read the comment above and those that followed Schumann 3; the comments about that performance found it too fast or aggressive. We relished it.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — December 8, 2015 at 7:49 pm

  7. Here’s another example: Nelsons just did the Berg concerto, and I was impressed with much of it but by the last five or six minutes I felt the performance just getting slower. By contrast, WRTI/Philadelphia just aired the tape-delayed performance of the same work with Gil Shaham, Robin Ticciati and the Philadelphians. That was much livelier than the Nelsons one, but for legal seasons I can’t share the streamed audio with you folks. Nelsons also seemed slower than when Tetzlaff and Jimmy Levine did it seven years ago, a performance for which I drove all the way out to Symphony Hall on a Saturday night and then drove all the way back to the Saratoga, NY, region — this was the massive concert with the Mahler 9th that was so impressive.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — December 9, 2015 at 1:16 pm

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