It had been at least 50 years since this graybeard had attended a Friday afternoon Boston Symphony concert. Back in college, many of us would skip the Friday morning class, take the subway into Symphony Hall carrying a bag lunch, and line up in the front vestibule (now the first-floor café) in front of Henry Lee Higginson’s bronze, and wait until the line snaked around the room. Some of us would bring soprano and alto recorders and partbooks with Tafelmusik by Telemann and Praetorius, and we’d run through some of those pieces waiting until the portable booth put the rush seats on sale; they cost 90 cents back then.
Back to the future, Symphony’s guest conductor Vladimir Jurowski, was new to me—this series marks his third guest appearance—but his style and control proved admirable. He telegraphed excellent time and significant registering with his baton hand, and great flexibility in both control and cueing with his left, all with a restrained, un-athletic manner. And there was nothing to challenge in his interpretation during the entire concert—except, perhaps, in how he chose to slow down the tempo in the Trio sections of the Haydn and Beethoven symphonies’ third movements, but maybe that’s consistent with current thoughts on 18th-century practice.
Haydn’s 26th Symphony, composed ca. 1768 and called “Lamentatione” by Haydn himself after the manner of several works by his contemporaries, led off. The title points to the use of Gregorian melodies, chants for use in Holy Week, that appear in the first two movements. Like most of Haydn’s early symphonies, this no. 26 calls for his basic orchestra of two oboes, two horns, and strings, with optional bassoon doubling the cello-bass line. The first movement, Allegro assai con spirito, in D minor, begins with the violins syncopated on the offbeats against the on-the-beat lower strings, rather in the manner of Mozart’s K. 466 Piano Concerto in the same key; the same kind of syncopation, at much faster tempo, is what seethes in Weber’s Freischütz Overture, composed 1821—but one assumes that by that time orchestral players in Germany were better trained and more experienced, and could cope with the higher velocity.
The Adagio is a really slow rounded-binary form, with an eighth-note walking bass throughout. The Chorale starts with oboe and second violins, as countermelody to the expressive first-violin line, and continues after the repeat; with the return, the horns join the oboes, and the sound was warm and stately. The first movement of Haydn’s 22nd Symphony, the one called “Philosopher,” proceeds in the same glacial but eloquent manner. The apparent solemnity of the symphony may explain why there was no finale. The D minor Minuet that followed the Adagio was brisk; the D major Trio, taken at a slightly slower tempo, was equally strong but replete with surprises, including a sudden forte chord on the third beat of the bar, no less than five times.
Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963), pupil of Hermann Scherchen and Anton Webern, a composer caught up in the catastrophes of his century, is hardly known in America; only twice before has the BSO performed any work of his. But the Concerto funebre for violin and string orchestra constitutes an impressive testimonial to the composer’s despair at what was happening to his native Germany — “in the autumn of 1939, not long after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia,” says the program note by Philip Huscher, who probably meant 1938. Original titled Musik der Trauer; the composer revised the work in 1959, four years before his death. The unusual form of the four movements, separate but cyclically connected, proved entirely convincing. Hartmann’s harmony evinces a generally triadic framework, with a good deal of parallel chords and divisi strings that might remind some listeners of Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia but reminds me more of Musorgsky and Russian Orthodox choral style. In the middle of the Adagio second movement Wagner’s Tristan chord, appeared plainly, one wonders why. The third movement, Allegro di molto, featured the soloist aggressively fighting the orchestra with rapid repeated notes like trumpet calls, an almost military sound; this yielded gradually to the final “Choral–Langsamer Marsch”, with the solo violin and strings in antiphonal phrases, and a harmony of widely-spaced triads and seventh chords — not like Debussy, nor like Hartmann’s exiled contemporary Hindemith, but idiosyncratic, personal, individual, and moving. The solo violinist, Alina Ibragimova, a native Russian who now lives in England, appearing for the first time with the BSO, proved herself fearless as well as deeply sensitive in this work. (The biographical notes in the BSO program book come from her website, which doesn’t list her age, but Wikipedia indicates that she is now 31 years old.)
After the intermission Ibragimova returned with Haydn’s C Major Violin Concerto, the best known of the three or four that Haydn wrote. I liked her sound and expression in the first movement but didn’t much care for her freestyle fingerwork, which frequently got away from the beat and pushed the tempo beyond what Jurowski controlled; this may be another example of fashionable interpretive practice. But the playing as a whole was scintillating. The accompaniment was very satisfying, too, and in the F major Adagio the strings put down their bows for extended pizzicato; Ibragimova’s delicacy of pianissimo tone was lovely to hear. The third movement, in 6/8, is marked Presto but it was hardly more than Allegro moderato, and that was good, too, because one could hear everything precisely.
There’s no symphony in the world that is more of a sheer delight than Beethoven’s No. 2 in D Major, op. 36. Beethoven’s first has been called one of Haydn’s best symphonies, and with good reason, but the Second, an enormous leap forward, opens an original, and entirely new world. The Adagio molto introduction in the first movement is long, ornate, and very dramatic; it yields to an Allegro con brio with whirling themes that Haydn could never have imagined. The Larghetto second movement is, IMHO, the loveliest slow movement in all of Beethoven’s symphonies (I’ve always felt that the plodding, supposedly eloquent Adagio in the Ninth Symphony just wasn’t memorable enough). It’s a dramatic sonata form, too. (And hats off to the horns, too, who beautifully negotiated those precarious high E’s.) The Scherzo is more than comical: it is transcendently witty. And the same can be said about the bouncing finale, Allegro molto, full of accents, big melodic leaps, and galloping accompaniment. (Get out your scores and look for the amazing sudden ff at mm. 372-373 of the finale—this is in my private thesaurus of “devastating augmented sixth chords.”) It is pure Beethoven, not even remotely like Haydn or Mozart or any other contemporary. How strange that when Beethoven was writing this joyful symphony, he was simultaneously reaching the depths of personal despair as witnessed by the Heiligenstadt Testament. If the finale sped by rather too fast for ready comprehension, that can’t matter much. This elegant performance suggests Vladimir Jurowski should bring us more Beethoven.