IN: Reviews

Comically Distraught Haydn to Dancing Beethoven


Under the masterful and restrained leadership of emeritus conductor Bernard Haitink, one of the finest senior conductors of our time, the Boston Symphony Orchestra delivered Haydn, Debussy, and Beethoven in a programmatically somewhat unusual cross-section, but at the highest level of orchestral expertise. On Thursday it was a real pleasure to watch Haitink’s expert control, often with his right hand holding the baton motionless while his left was effortlessly giving cues, registering, and even marking the beat, controlling the violin dynamics with a light wave of the hand.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 60 in C Major (Il distratto), formally unusual among his 106, is cobbled together in six movements from incidental music to a comedy by J. F. Regnard, Le distrait (“The distraught”), which was performed at Eszterház in German (Der Zerstreute).  It was very popular in its day, but Haydn in his later years seems to have lost interest in it, referring to it in a letter as “that old pancake [Schmarrn].”  The comedy stimulated some pretty good orchestral jokes. Jan Swafford’s very good notes mention the second-theme episode in the Allegro di molto first movement when “the music gets stuck on a chord and drifts off into silence, as if losing its train of thought [pp], then shakes itself awake [ff].” Another example comes in the Presto fourth movement, when a nine-bar passage in F minor (mm. 82-90) is followed by the identical passage in E-flat major (mm. 91-99) with the crudest possible parallel-octave motion between them; but the grossest instance is 18 bars into the Prestissimo finale, when all the violins retune their instruments, quickly adjusting the G strings from F back to G. The audience laughed at that interruption. Despite all these silly gestures, the work sparkles with typical Haydn wit and melodiousness. He includes military fanfares, French folk melodies and a Gregorian theme woven into different movements; their significance probably alludes to the forgotten comedy.

All six movements call for oboes, horns, and timpani, but five of them add trumpets in C, paired with the horns, which are in the rare key of C alto — the natural horn without crooks. This makes for a remarkably bright sound in the upper register, but includes high notes that are very difficult to play on the usual valve horn in F. I couldn’t see whether the horn players used special smaller instruments for this performance, but the sound was lovely.

Would Debussy’s complete Nocturnes closely follow the critical edition published in the Debussy Œuvres complètes? (True believers and dedicated fanatics are invited to see my precise review of this meticulously edited and documentarily ridiculously complex score in Music Library Association Notes, September 2001.) Debussy spent a year working out the careful orchestration of the Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune in 1894. The Nocturnes of 1899, much longer and more complex orchestrally, gave Debussy far more orchestrational trouble than did any other music of his, especially in the third piece, Sirènes, and even in his later years Debussy was not fully certain of what he wanted in this work. But in the Nocturnes he learned his lessons well, because his next major work, which was Pelléas et Mélisande, is an orchestral marvel and totally confident.  From what I could discern, last night’s performance stuck very closely to the critical score. Some matters of balance and detail felt questionable. For instance, in Nuages, at mm. 23 and 27 the horns are specified to be open, not muted. But last night they were way too loud, indeed a solid f. The marking is p with decrescendo hairpin.

Some regard the third Nocturne, Sirènes, as less-than-ideal Debussy, indeed as a preliminary orchestral study for La mer. That may well be true, but last night’s fine performance gave no external signs of the difficulty Debussy faced in getting it right. Debussy’s achievement in deploying a wordless female choir as an instrument of pure orchestral sound was beautifully vindicated in this performance (Women of Tanglewood Festival chorus, excellently prepared by Lidiya Yankovskaya, who carefully chose the different vocalization syllables). There is, nevertheless, a definite problem in Sirènes, but it is in the form, not the sound. There is definitely an excess of four-bar phrasing and two-bar repetition, notwithstanding that these formal aspects are a fundamental aspect of Debussy’s style and technique. The subtle differences in phrase lengths in Nuages and Fêtes are apparent to any who seek them out, and are just right; the square and literal repetitions in Sirènes are just a little too much. What preoccupied Debussy in composing Sirènes were texture and sound, and even more than these, the harmony that drives them, and these are what we listen for most closely.

Haitink leads BSO and women of TFC (Robert Torres photo)

Beethoven’s beloved Seventh Symphony followed with great enthusiasm apparent from the orchestra. The first movement always kept a good dotted 6/8 that never slipped back into 2/4; the beautiful Allegretto had a perfect blend of lyricism and drama; the Scherzo was a true Presto and very staccato. The finale, Allegro con brio, was full of brio, but nevertheless I thought it was too fast. It even seemed faster than Beethoven’s indicated M.M. of 72 to the measure, but the guiding principle should be whether the sixteenths in the strings can be fully and properly articulated.  A friend of mine, who has been reading War and Peace, remarked that this finale sounded like the clashing sabers at the Battle of Borodino, which, however, took place a few months after Beethoven completed the Seventh. Nevertheless, the bright, cheerful interpretation fully justified Wagner’s declaration that the Seventh was “the apotheosis of the dance.” The audience jumped to its feet in cheers, and no wonder.

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.


13 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I heard most of tonight’s broadcast of the Beethoven. The last movement tempo mostly varied between c. 75 and 80, sometimes shooting even higher. There were bits were it went down below 70, but those were in the more exploratory passages. More than its speed being > what Beethoven asked for, the whole thing felt just a little unstable, as if everyone were still in the habit of rushing– a traditional problem with that movement.

    The same thing happened in reverse for the trio of the third movement– while it began in the vicinity of what Beethoven asked for (and flowed very nicely), it repeatedly lapsed into the pre-Toscanini grandeur that used to bog that section down.

    Otherwise, it seemed like an exceptional performance. Most of what I heard was on the car radio, and with multi-miking and mixing you don’t always get the real picture of balances and dynamics. Nevertheless, the performance was obviously very carefully executed and had a wonderful sense of direction and proportion, even if it lacked some of the whimsicality of Beethoven the improviser. The BSO is in very fine form these days.

    Comment by Camilli — March 18, 2017 at 11:17 pm

  2. To describe it as “silly” does not do justice to the re-tuning moment in Haydn’s wonderful “Il distratto.” For this correspondent, it is high up in the list of the most remarkable eight measures found in symphonic music. Haydn is here providing his fortunate listeners with a programatic “shell” in which they may insert their own fiction. What a wonderful gift! Here is one possible storyline: the musicians are reminding their audience that there is more than one way to tune a violin. It is “call to arms” for lovers and defenders of scordatura. Or perhaps this: (I confess that this one is my own current invention): The violin section has spent the afternoon enjoying the bucolic pleasures in the neighborhood of Esterházy. They re-tuned their instruments in order to sound out a low ‘F’ called for in a quirky country tune they were asked to play in the local tavern. Paid in rich Szekszárd wine, they hastily returned to the Palace for their early-evening work. In their haste they forgot to tune up their low strings to that sober ‘G.’ Their solution: flaunt such shocking intransigence by playing two measures of A and E (how dull…2 measures of D and A (still dull)…and 4 measures of F(!) and D. “So we forgot to tune…lets give ‘em 4 measures to really rub it in…”

    There is a scene in a story by Isaac Loeb Peretz that describes how the Rabbi of Nemirov disguised himself as a peasant in order to make give anonymous charity to a pauper. His disguise was this: “high boots, a a coat; a big felt hat, and a long wide leather belt sutured with nails”. In short; a ridiculous outfit. A silly outfit.

    Silly and sublime.

    Comment by jonathan brodie — March 20, 2017 at 3:17 pm

  3. The seating for the evening was illuminating in what it revealed in the music, especially in the Beethoven. Although I’ve heard the BSO in more standard seating perform the Nocturnes twice before, and although I know the Haydn 60 from a wonderful recording by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on DG, I don’t know either well enough to discern how the seating (violins – cellos – violas)opened those works up in these performances. However the Beethoven 7th sounded especially transparent, with each orchestral voice distinct. (Granted, we sat in the 3rd row Orchestra exact center.) As many times as I have heard the BSO perform the 7th and as many times as I’ve listened to my C. Kleiber cd and others, I have never noticed the beautiful antiphonal playing between the violins and the violas during a stretch of measures in the second movement. Heavenly, and that was evident so clearly, I think, because of Haitink’s seating.
    One small concern, though. I know performing music as demanding as the 7th requires great concentration and serious attention, but, really, how can an orchestra perform the entire 7th without having one member smile even once. I am remembering a benchmark performance of the work (actually, across the street from Symphony Hall a few years ago) in which the orchestra displayed so much enjoyment and enthusiasm in playing that it communicated the spirit of the piece tremendously without adversely affecting the technical excellence of their playing. I would have loved to have seen that in this performance as well. How can one not just revel in the performing of this work?
    Otherwise, what a terrific evening of music from our beloved Haitink and our great orchestra.

    Comment by edente — March 20, 2017 at 5:46 pm

  4. Plenty of smiles during Saturday night’s Beethoven, edente, despite the fact that Maestro Haitink took the final movement a bit too fast to warrant much enthusiasm.

    I’m slightly surprised by your comment, though – this band has hardly wanted for high spirits this season. They appear to like their music director, their artistic director, the management, and each other. I hear and see them playing their hearts out just about every week. And, the demeanor onstage at the conclusion of Saturday night’s concert was nothing short of jubilation, especially as the players applauded their conductor.

    Comment by nimitta — March 20, 2017 at 11:04 pm

  5. Oh, and a fantastic comment above by Jonathan Brodie – bravo!

    Comment by nimitta — March 20, 2017 at 11:08 pm

  6. Edente, the string seating for this program was the same as the orchestra employed in most of Seiji Ozawa’s time as Music Director, and often since then as well. Apparently this was Karajan’s favorite scheme, as it allows the winds to hear the bass line from the celli as a tuning and balancing reference. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise to any long-time symphony-goer.

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — March 21, 2017 at 6:09 pm

  7. Thank you Nimitta!

    I am hoping that either Professor DeVoto or a BMI commentator who was fortunate enough to be in attendance at this concert can answer this: Was the violin sections able to tune down their G strings to ‘F’ before starting the Finale without virgin (for lack of a better tern) “Il distratto” audience members catching on? And if they they were able to do so surreptitiously, how exactly did they logistically pull it off?

    Certainly there are more pressing matters in this unraveling world , but how this logistical tuning challenge is handled in a public performance is something I have wondered about for many years.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — March 21, 2017 at 8:49 pm

  8. I am no violinist, but I do confess that I have conducted a performance of “Il distratto,” back in 1966. My recollection is that there is no particular difficulty in un-tuning the G string in the finale. Mm. 17-18 are rest measures; mm. 19-22 are bowed double-stops on the E, A, and D strings. That allows six bars for the left hand to seize and twist the tuning peg, with the instrument held more or less snugly by the chin. I’m sure that the rapid un-tuning would not land exactly on the F indicated in the score, but only somewhere nearby; nevertheless the eight bars of mm. 23-30, even at Prestissimo, would be enough musical time to bring the G string back up to normal pitch, even though probably not exactly in tune. What is least likely is that the violinists would take time after the fifth movement to adjust the G string down to F, which would give the whole joke away to an alert audience; besides, although Haitink didn’t resort to it, some performances begin the finale attacca, hard on the heels of the accelerando in the concluding bars of the Adagio di Lamentatione.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — March 22, 2017 at 3:55 pm

  9. I had a chance to attend the Tuesday (last) concert in this series. I am no expert on Debussy as is our excellent reviewer, but Haitink had the orchestra, chorus and audience in the palm of his hand during the performance. His hushed piano/pianissimos contrasted very effectively with the forceful portions with the brass and woodwinds. There was hardly a cough or murmur from the audience: they were spellbound. I have heard Munch and Ozawa do the Nocturnes, and his was the equal to the Munch. Bravo. I agree that the Beethoven last movement was a bit too fast (but not as fast as under Munch!!), but it fit with his conception of the piece as a whole. The unusual seating of the woodwinds/brass in the middle but for the trumpets and timpani in the rear made for a delightful chorus despite some minor bloops in the brass. The timpanist stole the show, however, for those of us in the second balcony: his rawness in playing made the last movement a whirling dervish. There were a lot of young students in the audience and they saw the BSO and a maestro at their best. I hope he will continue to be active and return to delight us again. As a post=script, after 5 + minutes of curtain calls, Haitink came out to the podium for the last time, took the score and baton and waved goodbye.

    Comment by RSB — March 22, 2017 at 10:36 pm

  10. Mystery solved. If I had only looked at the score I might have figured out what you describe above. I am used to the scenario of scordaturas being carefully pre-set before the music begins as in Biber or Tobias Hume. But in this case, as you point out, doing that would ruin the surprise.

    Thank you Professor DeVoto!

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — March 22, 2017 at 10:36 pm

  11. thought this would be Haitink’s last concert here. but he is on next year’s programme. we will see.

    this B7 was an order of mag better than last year’s Blomstedt performance. Haitink is known to be more solid at live performance than in recording. But I would argue that some routine performances would (make people feel) sound better in concert hall. It seemed to me that he treated that concert as a routine. He did not try to create anything special (which is extremely difficult to begin with). He was actually on the lazy side, only paying attention to a few places. Music is however not painting. A true Beethoven admirer could tell the difference between a good and a great one. B7 is capable of giving audience much larger emotional impact, which I certainly do not usually expect from Haitink.

    The 3rd movement playing quality was actually rather poor. There was some strange chords in the late 2nd or 3rd movement, reminding me of his Brahms 4, which produced sound unheard previously. His Brahms recording with BSO told me later that it was a concert mistake. I think this one too.

    Comment by Thorsten — April 11, 2017 at 5:18 pm

  12. Thorsten: what is your musical pedigree? Your musical training?Your comments here are usually negative in the extreme. Tell us what your own profession is. We can then critique it- whether we’re qualified or not. See how that would feel. For example, if you’re a physicist we can lob all sorts of fireballs in your direction. If you’re a lawyer, we can cite statutes. But your vitriol and grandiosity in these pages should go unanswered no longer. Next time you comment here, try to have some empathy and sympathy for those in the arena. Performing is very challenging work.

    Comment by rlhevinne — April 11, 2017 at 10:22 pm

  13. a simple question was asked to expect a simple answer. However the music world is not linear and more complex than a simple answer.

    I can give you a simple one: my resume is many orders of mag less impressive than James Levine. But many people are trying to decipher the ‘myth’ he does not appreciate two composers who have been fairly frequently discussed recently. yet he is known to be attracted to the great genius Richard Wagner. Following your simple qualification premise, the conclusion would be that Levine is QUALIFIED to disregard Bruckner’s symphonies. Sorry, I can’t stand this simplemindedness …

    There is something quite simple. Anything that tarnishes the superiority of those true geniuses should be heavily criticized (my definition of humanity). In a perfect world, one would sympathize for Beethoven/Bruckner’s cause a thousand times more than a BSO player or conductor’s.

    BTW, I won’t return to this page. if you’d like to have further relevant discussion, please wait till I have time to comment on something else.

    Comment by Thorsten — April 12, 2017 at 11:29 am

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