Gunther Schuller, who died two years ago at age 89, made his home in Boston ever since 1967, when he arrived to direct the now 150-year-old New England Conservatory of Music. His relationship with the Boston Symphony, which includes commissions and over 100 performances, stretches from 1959. The renowned conductor, orchestra player, and writer, composed abundantly for orchestra in his long career; the BSO had performed his well-known Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee (1959) either complete or in part over 30 times before last night.
It is a natural idea to associate Klee’s paintings and drawings with music, knowing that Klee himself was trained as a musician and only at maturity gave up the violin for full-time effort as an artist; one could say that in Klee’s visual art, the graphic line is like melody: a unifying element of structure. Schuller’s seven pieces are mostly short and fragmented; the first, “Ancient Harmonies,” is less than two minutes, with chromatically complex wind chords, and the second, “Abstract Trio,” about as long, presents more winds in pointillistic groups of three, concluding with a cadential pizzicato for the strings. “Little Blue Devil” begins with an orchestral shriek, and then, according to the composer’s notes, “is transformed into a kind of jazz piece. A perky, angular theme…is combined with a blues progression.” The blues had a sighing 1940s sound, very appealing, with walking bass beat and trap set, rich low-tessitura harmony, and some wild solo flurries for the vibraphone. “Twittering Machine,” another short piece, began with buzzing bees, a rapid texture of closely-packed seconds in strings and winds, which alternated thereafter with high- and ultra-high-register squeaks and bleats: string harmonics, three piccolos, and piano seemed to carry the day. “Arab Village” the longest of the seven pieces, was marked by intense color and spatiality, including an offstage solo flute and Arab melodies in an extraordinary timbral mix — the warbling melodic unit appeared to be a dissonant unison of solo viola, harp, and three oboes, and something else I couldn’t see or identify. The background of this was a G minor ostinato pulse just like Tchaikovsky’s in The Nutcracker but richer. The flute solo faded in and out of this, with echoes of Griffes’s beloved Poem and Ravel’s Flûte enchantée, and widely-spaced divided strings in lush harmony. “An Eerie Moment” was dominated by brief fortissimo gestures and a sostenuto background with a continuous roll on high timpano (I think). The last piece, “Pastorale,” which in Klee’s original carried a subtitle, “Rhythms,” revealed repeated stepwise oscillations, back and forth and slurred, and fading away. Andris Nelsons directed the whole ensemble with close precision and minimal gestures, and the orchestra’s concentration was complete.
Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K. 482, comes geographically between two more popular works in the same genre, No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 “Elvira Madigan,” and No. 23 in A Major, K. 488. K. 482 is like a reincarnation of an early but fully mature concerto, no. 9 in E-flat Major, K. 271 “Jeunehomme”, but with a larger orchestra (flute, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, strings, but lacking oboes); both works have slow movements in C minor, and both include a Minuet as a separate section in the middle of the finale. K. 482 is more relaxed, just as K. 271 is more brazen. The slow movement of K. 482 is a variation form of rare beauty, like that of no. 18, K. 456. (The finales of no. 17 in G Major, K. 453, and no. 24 in C Minor, K. 491, are also in variation form.) A perceptible orchestral problem in this work has something to do with the woodwinds: if the passages for two bassoons in unison were played by only one, there would be an improvement.
Emanuel Ax was the expert piano soloist. He and conductor didn’t seem to quite match at first; it was a while before his running scale passages achieved the requisite metric clarity; but eventually all was well, as Ax allowed Mozart’s unsurpassed lyricism to emerge full strength. This was especially true in the lovely slow movement. (Psychological programming nexus here: the subdominant coda of Mozart’s Andante [from m. 200 to the end] and the subdominant coda in the Marcia funebre of Beethoven’s Eroica [from m. 223 to the end], both in the same key, have an uncanny feeling.) The finale had plenty of bounce and brightness, and Emanuel Ax’s love for the piece was everywhere evident; according to the program book, he has played it with the BSO “on numerous occasions” with six other conductors.
Most histories of music point to Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Sinfonia eroica, op. 55, as a milestone that marks a point-of-no-return for the evolution of musical art. I think of it in slightly different terms — as a work of such amazing originality that no one could have foreseen its appearance on the horizon, no one could have heard it coming just on the basis of what was already known. There are other such works: Chopin’s B Minor Scherzo, op. 21; Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique; the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde (Wagner himself wrote at the end of a sketch: “So ward noch nie komponirt!”); Debussy’s Nuages; Stravinsky’s Petrushka. But Beethoven’s Eroica is what made the entire Romantic era, and indeed the whole modern musical world from 1815 to 1914, possible. Paul Henry Láng said it well 76 years ago: “Beethoven himself never again approached this feat of fiery imagination; he wrote other, perhaps greater works, but he never again took such a fling at the universe. Every component is unusual but singularly appropriate for his purpose, which is not the cult of one person but of an ideal, that of heroism itself.” Beethoven’s personally heroic act was also his triumphant affirmation of his destiny over his own despair. Judging from the joyful and witty lyricism of the Second Symphony of 1802, one could not imagine that Beethoven, crippled by advancing deafness, had considered suicide in that same year; just two years later, he launched mankind on its greatest musical adventure, leading the way with the Eroica.
The formal features of the Sinfonia eroica are so well known, and so often written about by dozens of major writers, that I hardly need say much about them here. (An excellent recent treatment can be found in Beethoven’s Symphonies: An Artistic Vision, by Lewis Lockwood, published 2015.) Above all, the four movements of the Eroica are an unflagging demonstration of forward motion in time, of assuring that the musical ideas follow correctly and in unbroken succession, whether in rapid tempo (the Scherzo), slow tempo (the Marcia funebre), moderate tempo (the first movement: Allegro con brio), or changing tempi (the Finale). It still startles audiences to realize that the first movement of the Eroica, nearly 700 measures, is almost as long in performance as an entire symphony of Haydn’s or Mozart’s, and its intensity never diminishes, even when it breathes for an instant, as at mm. 154-166 and 551-566. The Marcia funebre, with its triplet drumbeats and reverse-dotted rhythms, is almost as long as the first movement. The Scherzo bursts the bonds of the classical minuet and trio decisively and relentlessly. The Finale, which blends variations with the Sturm und Drang fantasia, is Beethoven’s single most radical adventure in variation form, his most brilliant confrontation with a theme that began as a Contredanse (WoO 14), broadened in his Prometheus ballet (op. 43), expanded further in his Variations for piano, op. 35, and culminated in the last movement of the Eroica.
This was the first Eroica I had heard live in some years. The orchestra played brilliantly in all respects. My disagreements are interpretive, and I’m not sure that everybody will follow my lead. First of all, the tempi. This performance, as in so many other recent instances, reveal to me that Beethoven’s own metronome markings, as published, are just wrong. Beethoven’s opening Allegro con brio asks for 60 to the measure. Andris Nelsons’s tempo last night was close to Toscanini’s, in fact slightly slower than 60; most listeners would be convinced that more coherence, and more audibility of detail, would be possible only with a slower tempo, something like Klemperer’s of about 120 to the quarter. But an even more egregious example is the Allegro molto of the Finale, which Beethoven marks at 76 to the 2/4 measure ( = 152 to the quarter), which just doesn’t make sense. Nelsons came close to this, and it sounded really chaotic, indeed much faster than the Presto at the end of the movement, where the M.M. is 116 to the quarter. When the main theme enters at m. 12, a slower tempo than 76 is surely called for; 60 to the measure is more like it. As for the dynamics, the faster tempo tends to push these as well, and many times I felt that the tutti were too loud. E.g., in the Marcia funebre, the crescendo at mm. 96-98, marked f sempre più f should culminate in a solid ff, not fff. Not always, for sure! In the first movement, the crescendo from p to ff in just one measure (m. 185), just as Beethoven demands, was superbly exciting. Then there’s the middle of the Development section, a very famous passage, where Beethoven writes accents with sf 36 times in 32 bars, beginning at a ff level, climaxing with four very dissonant Neapolitan seventh chords which are, ironically, marked only f. Yet all of these contradictory markings don’t, to my mind, represent a challenge for greater force so much as greater restraint.
In this performance of the Eroica I was able to get the full impression of Andris Nelsons’s choreographic bent. He throws gestures all over the place, often conducting the accents rather than the measures, where these are at variance, and this can be very important; he turns right and left to face one or the other sections of strings (cellos and basses on the right), sometimes with small precise beat, other times with exaggerated swoops, and sometimes to great effect, not at all (e.g., mm. 527-531 in the first movement); often he rests his left hand on the railing behind him — again, so as to call attention to the conducting arm. Sometimes he bounces on his feet. Nelsons’s big gestures sometimes generate a bigger, louder response from the orchestra than is called for by the music. But I don’t expect everyone to agree with me about this. This expressive Eroica deeply moved even when it was too fast and too loud.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.