One might conclude that the overarching theme of the Boston Philharmonic’s program, heard three times over the weekend (we heard the Saturday performance at Jordan Hall), was the Long 19th Century and how the Romanticism that characterized its music could look backward and forward at the same time. It was the first period in music history to concern itself with its own place in time, a concern that became an obsession in the 20th century and a collective mania in the 21st.
Under Benjamin Zander’s baton (and he’s enough of a traditionalist that he uses one), the BPO began with the overture from Schumann’s incidental music to Manfred. George Gordon Byron’s poem from 1817 was a peculiar thing—written as if a play, but not meant to be produced as such. Its protagonist, a Faustian figure skilled in summoning and conversing with spirits, seeks expiation for undisclosed sins involving his late beloved Astarte; many have regarded this as acknowledgment of the alleged incest with Byron’s half-sister that cratered his marriage. Be that as it may, Manfred defies all calls for repentance, obtaining only a noble but unshriven death. Schumann wrote several numbers in 1848 to go with the poem, but only the overture gets much traction. It not only looks back a few decades to the poem, but its musical treatment also reflects a Beethovenian style of dramatic overture writing, evoking Egmont and Coriolan in its taut grimness and constant drive. Zander adhered well to this conception, deviating at the beginning and end where Schumann composed Manfred’s sighs of remorse, and otherwise holding back only slightly in the (few) lyrical passages. A pleasing mellowness in the brass and winds didn’t at all detract from the orchestra’s tight, forward momentum.
The one work on the program that most lives in its own moment was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64, the world’s most popular violin concerto (for good reason). Of course, Mendelssohn’s classicizing traits anchor it firmly in the traditions of its prior century, but as the old program note by Michael Steinberg so aptly observed, that classicism tethered it to a naturally freewheeling Romantic imagination. It’s perhaps difficult for today’s listeners to hear how thoroughly Mendelssohn sought to reinvigorate the form with his judiciously applied innovations—the conjoined first and second movements, the repositioning of the first-movement cadenza to flow as an extension of the development section—and through the unified lyrical conception of the entire work. Compare it to any concerto by Spohr, who was still going strong in 1845 when Mendelssohn’s concerto premiered.
Globe-trotting but locally resident soloist Jennifer Frautschi made her BPO debut on these concerts, and she brought moments of power and fire, but mostly an intense lyrical sweetness, to the proceedings, along with an impish delight in the spritely delicacy of the finale (one caught her winking at Zander as she flung off the beginning runs with a glissando fillip). Many in the press have described a rich lushness in her playing; to us the sound was more like a thin, pure, crystal stream, suggestive of some past greats like Zino Francescatti. For his part, Zander held the orchestra to its generally deferential role while the soloist played, but brought it forward often enough to remind the listener of just how much was going on behind the soloist’s back.
The programmatically packed evening ended with Edward Elgar’s broad canvas Symphony No. 1 in A-flat, op. 55. Written in 1907, it was hardly the first substantial English symphony: Parry’s are all superb works, but, being generally genial in character, they get a pass from those whose music has to be anguished to be great. In that respect Elgar does not disappoint, but having waited as long as he did to commit a symphony (he was 50, even older than Brahms at the time of his first), he imbued it with a panoply of Big Ideas including angst. For one thing, he set the whole as an opposition between two keys, A-flat major and D minor, whose tonic notes are as remote from one another as possible in standard harmony. He also infused the music for these keys with different characters and kept them that way: the great, solemn, stately, noble march in A-flat, perhaps representing humanity’s (for which read: the British Empire’s) highest ideals, recurs periodically like Corinthian columns around the entire edifice, its music varied a bit in each presentation but essentially not interacting developmentally with the D minor music, which is febrile, querulous, and, yes, anguished. This strict separation can be read as a harbinger of the modernist approach to formal structure, focusing on a work-specific form paying less heed to “how it’s supposed to go” (a famous example of this is Ives’s The Unanswered Question, where the “question” theme is a touchstone that is largely unmodified by what goes on around it). The two conjoined middle movements, a scherzo and an adagio, are with immense cleverness integrated by using the same notes for their principal themes, while they evoke public and private sides of existence. And the finale’s ambiguous ending demonstrates that Elgar’s sensibility, like Kipling’s, contains far more nuance than is generally supposed.
The BPO’s publicity for these concerts repeated the trope that this Elgar is “rarely heard.” That may be true in the US, and is certainly true locally—the BSO last performed it in 2000 (under Andre Previn), and we can’t find any area performances in the BMInt database since 2009. Of course, it’s a different story in the UK, where it is revered as a national treasure (there are some who claim Elgar’s Second Symphony is better, but there are always people like that). We were very interested in hearing Zander’s take, because, for someone born in England, he has not hitherto been a notable exponent of British music. We’re told that he has done it with the BPO before, but it must have been quite some time ago.
The orchestra initial statement of the motto theme rose stunningly pure and lofty, while the allegro (D minor) sections of the first movement stormed and surged in a somewhat more moderated tempo than one might have expected. The scherzo flew fast and furious (furious even when it wasn’t fast); as Zander stated in his pre-concert talk, even knowing that the notes were the same as the slow movement’s doesn’t help all that much, since they fly by too quickly to register their individual pitches. There are crass sardonic marches, and a gentler trio section “by the river” that might have been better demarcated, but all of this the orchestra pitched with great bravura. The slow movement is supposed to be sublime, and maybe to an Englishman it is—the Brits have an inordinate fondness for Bruckner, and this seemed rather like that—but to us, its melody seemed too amorphous for sublimity, although Zander did his level best to create a serenity. The finale stirred with its opening tremolo in the lower strings, and the grand struggle between the motto theme, demanding to be heard, and the personal anxieties that resist it, was superbly staged. As is often the case with a big work like this, Zander signaled individual choirs to stand and be acknowledged, and we who write about these things often like to mention the winds and brasses; but on this occasion, the entire orchestra deserved kudos, particularly the massed strings.