Anyone who criticizes the Boston Symphony for only playing the tried and true, or the unfamiliar only when accompanied by a warhorse, needs to hold silence this weekend. Under Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo (currently conductor of both the BBC Symphony and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic), the BSO presents two under-performed early 20th century gems by Sibelius and Busoni. This series is unfortunately truncated (the piano soloist might disagree, for reasons stated below), consisting only of Friday afternoon and Saturday night. If you were on the fence about tonight, brave the cold and go hear it. While there is no explicit theme to discerned, both works were written in the first decade of the 20th century, and both bask in the light and warmth of C major.
The Symphony No. 3 of Jean Sibelius, op. 52 (1907), transitions from the Romantic effusions of the ever-popular No. 2 to the sparer, more fragmented style that asserted itself in No. 4. That said, it’s an open, user-friendly proposition that knits its disparate but completely intelligible strands into a grand summation. The BSO has only performed it in seven seasons (though Colin Davis seems to have conducted it twice in the ’72-’73 season, five months apart), and only twice in the last 40 years.
While the idiom of Sibelius 3 invites the listener to imagine woodland chatter, forest depths and expanses of sky and sea, it is anything but a tone poem. It is constructed with formal rigor, albeit of Sibelius’s idiosyncratic designs. In a compact three movements, it presents in its first movement motives rather than themes, beginning with a scurrying figure in the low strings (decisively articulated but perhaps a bit too loud). Some transitional passages, oddly, evoke the spirit of Mahler’s First Symphony, though the latter’s nature-worshipful ideas were far from Sibelius’s intentions. There are handsome, broad sweeps of sound, ably molded by Oramo, before the movement reaches a noble, yet surprising, new-tune coda. Despite the slight miscalculation at the beginning, Oramo’s dynamic control was superb. The slow movement (well, slow-ish) would sound like the processionals from Beethoven 7 or Mendelssohn 4, except it’s in triple meter. There are stellar orchestral touches, flute and clarinet colloquies with pizzicato strings (no violins, bowed violas well in the background), and again a touch of Mahler 1, this time the funeral march, though without Mahler’s irony. The finale opens with a scherzo-like figure under tight dynamic control, developing speed, volume and force as a broad folk-like melody develops from the various motivic figures, with hints of the Finlandia tune. This builds steadily to a radiant glow of northern sunlight—that’s C major for you. Oramo plainly loves this piece, and his steady hand and subtle rhythms and dynamics made it a pleasure to hear. More, please.
The big kahuna of the afternoon was the BSO’s first-ever performance of Ferrucio Busoni’s Piano Concerto in C Major, op. 39 (1904). We confess we long ago wore out a copy of John Ogdon’s legendary recording from 1967; Garrick Ohlsson’s from 1989 with the Cleveland Orchestra is here. Hugh Macdonald’s program note for the BSO is a fairly restrained exercise, so we can refer you here to Alex Ross’s appropriately over-the-top appreciation, to which we can add a dry comment from British composer Judith Weir (part of a commentary on a piece of her own) that “the 19th century piano concerto is actually a form of the martial arts.” There are very few pianists who take on this 70-minute-plus monster, which doesn’t have a cadenza and doesn’t need one because the entire work barely gives the soloist a moment’s break. Kirill Gerstein amazed us with his bravura, concentration (just imagine what it takes to learn this beast) and chops, but he should require a month in the country now to rest his fingers, wrists, arms and shoulders.
So what’s in this piece apart from lots of strenuous piano playing? Quite a lot to think about, actually. It begins, in a way, with a joke. Ross’s remark about the concerto’s opening homage to Brahms is only a little misleading: there’s the main tune, which has some aspects in common with the opening of Brahms’s Second Concerto, but then there’s a wink in the direction of the classic tradition, in which Busoni does not bring the piano in until the orchestra has given its exposition, consisting of that tune and something more like a rhythmic motif tied to a cadential phrase. Then the piano part for this movement consists in large measure of the sorts of filler passages, arpeggios, turns, trills and the like, that fill a lot of space in 18th and early 19th century concertos. one of the very greatest of the very great piano virtuosi of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Busoni clearly wrote this fodder for his own concert tours. Busoni was also a deep thinker on the esthetics of music, and saw himself, half Italian, half German, as a bridge between these opposing esthetics. With its references to German formal construction, Lisztian pyrotechnics, Art Nouveau Mahlerian expansiveness and grandiosity, and Italian lilt and lyricism, this is a Gesamtkunstwerk that requires no stagecraft (though it did require singers).
After the Apollonian Brahmsianism of the first movement, the second—the first of two scherzos that sandwich the expansive middle movement—is a Dionysian orgy of fury more Lisztian than Liszt, built on a very Italianate foundation. One can also note here Busoni’s sure hand with orchestration, and Oramo’s sure hand in keeping the many lines clear. One will also notice that Busoni has fashioned his very disparate musical moods out of materials common to the opening movement, though subtly so.
The middle movement, which Busoni subdivided didactically into four sections, an introduction and three “parts” (though those parts form a fairly recognizable ABA structure), with the introduction’s principal melody an interesting fusion of Wagnerian chromaticism and diatonic phrase endings, and the first/third parts based on two tunes of nearly banal simplicity that get a thorough Mahlerian working-out in the manner of the Eighth Symphony, along with the material from the introduction. Apart from some muddiness in the “B” section (part 2), Gerstein and Oramo did justice to the slow-moving but cumulatively devastating grandeur of this music. The second scherzo is a tarantella, of the most intense and diabolical kind, a frenzy of notes that, truth to tell, was played so much for speed that clarity was truly beside the point (as Hindemith might have put it, Tonklarheit ist Nebensache). This movement is definitely the most self-indulgent part of the concerto, with climax after climax, and it goes on too long, though when it ended, with a series of gentle pizzicatos in the basses, it elicited the chuckle Busoni probably intended it to do, before proceeding to the attacca finale.
Somebody correct this if it’s in error, but the Busoni concerto is probably the only piano concerto to have a chorus in it. Of course, there is the precedent of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, but that’s a short-ish one-movement piece, not a multi-movement work. Of choral symphonies, by 1904 there were plenty of examples. Many have pointed to Liszt’s Faust Symphony as the inspiration for Busoni, but why stop there? In a return to the calm demeanor that characterized the first movement, Busoni’s finale follows an orchestral introduction with a setting for male chorus (the men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, superbly prepared by Lidiya Yankovskaya) of text from Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger’s Aladdin, from which Busoni had once toyed with the idea of making an opera. The text contains lines like “The pillars of the world stand peacefully here…Life and death are playfully exchanged./ But quietly awaiting they stretch out…” In other words, reinforcing the sense of eternity, of all things becoming one in the divine presence. The moment the chorus enters was one of the high points of the performance, by the way, a perfect welling up from silence; bravo to Oramo and Yankovskaya for making that happen. For the rest of its work in this movement, the chorus demonstrated the precision, warmth and clarity for which it is justly famous. The finale shares the problem Beethoven had in the Fantasy: once the chorus enters, the piano becomes largely superfluous, and while (as in Beethoven) the piano has a few licks and then gets in the last word after the chorus finishes, the compositional problem is clearly one that Busoni couldn’t solve any better than his illustrious predecessor.
Needless to say, Gerstein got the tumultuous applause he richly deserved. We are informed that programming what he refers to as the king of piano concerti was the brainchild of BSO Artistic Administrator Anthony Fogg as part of a season-long celebration of the acquisition of two new Steinways. Fogg deserves an equal share of the kudos along with Gerstein, Orama, Yankovskaya, the orchestra and chorus.