IN: Reviews

First Person Singulars at the BSO


Standing in for the still-ailing Christoph von Dohnányi, Andris Nelsons this week conducted two works by composers who broke decisive musical ground by “putting themselves” at the heart of their works, to paraphrase Haydn’s comment on Beethoven. Martin Helmchen returned (He did the Beethoven Emperor with Dohnanyi at the BSO two years ago and the Schumann at Tanglewood in 2011) as piano soloist, this time in the Beethoven C Minor Piano Concerto. The second half featured Mahler’s First Symphony, briefly called “Titan” by Mahler himself, perhaps after the novel by Jean Paul. Last night, we heard thrilling performances of both works, presented as we’ve never heard them before.

Charles Rosen wrote that Beethoven in C minor “has come to symbolize his artistic character … [revealing] Beethoven as a Hero”. Nelsons and Helmchen took the revelation a step higher by depicting the composer-hero as Prometheus bringing fire to humanity. Nelsons infused the orchestral exposition with a marvelous feeling of aimless wandering, conveying a humanity in search of itself, in search of a direction, plagued by ambivalent moods of yearning/anxiety, impatience/expectation, hope/defiance. Helmchen entered into this human vagabondage by taking immediate, life-infusing control. Suddenly there was force of expression, energy, an ineffable sense of purpose. With hair becoming more disheveled by the minute, Helmchen sat Beethoven firmly at the piano, bringing fire from the gods, communicating energy to the orchestra and to the audience in great rushes of adrenaline. In the softer, restrained moments, the wild man at the piano seemed to be single-handedly harnessing a powerful force of nature for the sake of delivering it to humanity by increments. The orchestra responded by becoming excited, confident and infused with divine energy.

Nelsons’s and Helmchen’s Promethean reading of the first movement allowed the largo slow movement to speak to us in its full plenitude of revelation, evoking a solemn and worshipful process in which the orchestra could absorb the vastness and brooding eternity of the cosmos. Helmchen outdid himself in shaping the notes with great nuance, sometimes sparkling, other times muted, mysterious and without shine. The rondo finale was positively demonic, in the original Greek sense of “inhumanely” inspired and creative. This feeling of a danse diabolique was achieved through bold dynamics in the orchestra, evoking audacity and still more audacity in the face of danger, combined with Helmchen’s mischievous gestures of infusing the creatures of Prometheus with ever-new increments of energy as they brandished their fire. Nelsons’s conducting was brilliant, verging on the charivari, and made the audience fall in love with heroic inventiveness before the unpredictable all over again.

Nelsons brought the same unveiling of hidden possibilities to Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. The first movement pulled us slowly out of slumber, as though creating us out of nothingness in a brooding genesis that led to explosive dynamics in which the composer-hero could find a precarious footing and live and move and have his being. Nelsons carefully crafted two simultaneous layers of awareness, a surface level of loveliness in which a young flâneur/hunter/hero could naively be lured into a cocky sense of human self-confidence, while a second layer of dark abysses and dangers threatened to erupt at every step. Nelsons ended the movement with uncompromising dynamics to position Mahler firmly as directing us forward to Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Modernism. The second movement Landler was given a frankly Expressionist level of savagery, a horrific kernel of death-dominated urges, presenting humanity as blind to its irrationally homicidal nature.

Andris Nelsons conducts BSO and Martin Helmchen (Robert Torres photo)

In the famous funeral march movement, Nelsons made us hear Mahler’s chilling distortions of the folk song “Bruder Martin”, allowing humor to become grotesque and conveying humanity’s unsettling investment in morbid rituals. The Klezmer trio episode was interpreted as self-subverting, with conflicting layers of lyrical nostalgia and naïve triumphalism, but it opened a brilliantly unexpected clearing for the composer-hero to discover the “I” in himself that is capable of pulling us out of savagery and morbidity—only to be faced anew with the funeral procession and the return of the death culture. Nelsons interpretation of the final movement was as masterful as it was original and bold. He forcefully showed us Mahler’s Modernist vision, as the composer-hero faces a world of horror and terror with his own solitary self-belief and resources. Carefully controlling the balance of each section of the ensemble and each entry, Nelsons brought to life Mahler’s “from hell to paradise” ideation, highlighting Mahler as a new, modernist Dante whose personal experience of suffering is transformed into hope for humanity. In the end, the composer-hero confronts the seduction of apocalypse and pulls us out of a late-Romantic Wagnerian bewitchment with Thanatos (nihilism) by means of a resolute and thrilling affirmation that we are free to pursue a culture of life and love (Eros) over our death wish.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.


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

  1. Ditto for Friday afternoon concert!

    Comment by RSB — November 17, 2017 at 7:51 pm

  2. And a very Happy 39th Birthday today, Andris

    Comment by Nancy Aspel Haase — November 18, 2017 at 5:31 pm

  3. It was, indeed on Friday, full-throated, dramatic Beethoven and Mahler. Nelsons has a policy that climactic timpani rolls (such as the one anticipating the 1-mvmt cadenza in the Beethoven) end with discrete, measured whacks, not rolling to the end. But at the end of a fermata, what’s the rhythm being preserved?

    Comment by Martin Cohn — November 18, 2017 at 5:41 pm

  4. During the call backs for Nelsons after tonight’s (Saturday) concert, after he recognized the orchestra sections, the entire orchestra picked up their instruments and played Happy Birthday to him, and the audience sang along. I’ve never seen that before!
    He then took the podium and spoke very emotionally about how surprised and moved he was by the birthday song, and about how great it was to be back home in Symphony Hall after their tour.
    He noted that after so many performances of the Mahler they decided to take liberties with it tonight and perform it at a faster pace, which, he said, made the stage manager happy!
    It was a night we’ll long remember, for the performances and the afterthoughts. (This was my second hearing of the Mahler by the BSO this season and my fifth overall over the years.)
    BTW, Helmchen took a completely different performance tack (more lyrical than percussive) with the interesting encore he played, “The Prophet Bird”, by Schumann.

    Comment by edente — November 19, 2017 at 12:18 am

  5. Fantastic concert tonight, both halves, and I agree with Leon Golub on the fire and mastery of Helmchen’s playing. I take exception, however, to his relentless attempts to infuse Meaning into everything, Promethean ideologies and so on. It’s music; it doesn’t mean anything. It’s too pure for that.

    Anyway, this Prometheus thing is all wrong. Have the persistent rumors of Greek Myth that persistently cling to the Fourth now spread to the Third? Will they soon infect the others? Is this a new parlor game? Can anybody play?

    I’ll take my turn. I can do much better than Prometheus with the Third. It’s a pretty uneventful myth, after all – Prometheus steals fire, Prometheus chained to rock and tortured forever. Receives occasional visitors, who can’t help. That’s it. The Third, on the other hand, is pretty eventful, so I have a much better match: The Homecoming of Odysseus.

    The first movement is Odysseus among the Phaiakians. The orchestra is the Phaiakians (nominations are open for Nausikaa’s theme), the piano is Odysseus, the strange castaway who is moved to tears when he hears the harper sing of the sack of Troy. The cadenza is when Odysseus reveals himself, and begins his tale.

    The second movement begins with his awakening on the beach in Ithaka,and continues with his meeting with the goddess in disguise, his recognition by his old and faithful dog, and the immediate death of said dog (surely the most maudlin recognition scene in Great Literature – who says the Greeks were hard-hearted?), and his reunion and conspiracy with Telemakhos.

    The third movement is the enthusiastic massacre of the suitors, a joyful romp, along with a brief cameo by some dead heroes. That’s probably the final cadenza; anyway I’m sure it can be jammed in somewhere.

    See? it’s easy. Any myth will do. As for meaning, well, its a myth, it must mean something, or so people say. Myself, I have my doubts.

    Comment by SamW — November 19, 2017 at 12:31 am

  6. Yes Sam, anyone can play.

    I’ll note, though, that the Creatures of Prometheus and the Op. 35 Variations were written at about the same time as the C minor concerto. Invoking Odysseus seems arbitrary, while there is good reason to feel that Prometheus was an image of the Hero for Beethoven, combining inspiration with boldness for the sake of liberating humanity. It’s not much of a stretch to think that Beethoven identified with Prometheus, even before the Eroica.

    Comment by Leon Golub — November 19, 2017 at 8:19 am

  7. On Saturday night Narcissus was at the keyboard admiring his own beauty of tone instead of a Promethean Beethoven clanging and banging on a fortepiano with broken strings; we heard well-judged coloristic effects and elegance from a modern-piano God. The innig Schumann encore challenged the crowd to listen in.

    Nelsons took the Mahler for a brisk ride, though it was also one in which he observed quite well all of the opportunities to contrast heroism with schmaltz. Now if he could also cut about 15 minutes of redundancies…

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 19, 2017 at 9:32 am

  8. A passage from George Bernard Shaw’s inimitable review of Liszt’s “A Symphony To Dante’s Inferno” may have a bearing on this discussion:

    “It is hard to say what the characteristics of Dante’s Hell are. Turmoil, hurry, incessant movement, fire, roaring wind, and utter discomfort are there; but so are they in also in a London house when the kitchen chimney is on fire. Convey these by music, and the music will be just as appropriate to the one situation as to the other.”

    I agree with Shaw. If the listener is moved to a different place by the listening experience, any programmatic conceit used to get there is worthy. The image of Prometheus is certainly inspiring for the task, but so may be the image of the sunrise over Lake Michigan as it casts its rays over Sheboygan Harbour.

    Whatever it takes to get to Parnassus is legit so long as you get there.
    Sam W’s insight “It’s music; it doesn’t mean anything. It’s too pure for that.” is a bit dogmatic for me.

    I prefer my own dogmatism: It’s music. It’s purity is such that it means everything.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — November 19, 2017 at 10:11 am

  9. I can go along with that. I indulge in all sorts of associations when listening to music, deliberately or otherwise, and even sometimes when talking about it. I don’t think that they’re the essence of the music, though. “It doesn’t mean anything” and “it means everything” are not that far apart; both eschew the claim of a specific meaning.

    Comment by SamW — November 19, 2017 at 10:51 am

  10. Based on Lee’s comment, it seems that the Saturday performance was very different from the one on Thursday, and (according to RSB) on Friday. Jonathon Brodie says it well: “Whatever it takes”. My aim in these reviews is to convey to the reader what it felt like to be at the performance, and I use the tools that seem to be appropriate to each one, with a tendency toward simile. Eh, we all have our own style.

    I’ve always enjoyed reading Shaw’s writings as a music critic, even when he claimed that Elgar was superior to Brahms.

    Comment by Leon Golub — November 19, 2017 at 11:23 am

  11. Yes! The idea of having an obligation to derive a specific program in music drives me nuts. I also heartily agree with Sam W that programs are not the essence of music. Programs may be convenient and helpful rungs to use as we hike up the hill.

    The essence of music is music.

    Diligently following a specific program in the concert hall or the world beyond music is sadly limiting and even restrictive.

    For example…when the reader hears the news that this correspondent is “driven nuts” by specific programs,
    who am I to tell the reader what picturesque scenarios should come to mind?

    Is my my nuttiness expressed by trying to heal my sad condition by obsessively reading over and over again the opening passage in Tovey’s “The Mainstream of Music”?

    Or do I raid the liquor cabinet?

    The choice of scenarios is not mine to make.

    Comment by jJonathan Brodie — November 19, 2017 at 11:28 am

  12. My apologies to Leon Golub for not waiting a bit before responding to Sam W’s latest post. His most recent gracious response gives me lots to think about.

    Thank you!

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — November 19, 2017 at 11:45 am

  13. “On Saturday night Narcissus was at the keyboard admiring his own beauty of tone instead of a Promethean Beethoven clanging and banging on a fortepiano with broken strings; we heard well-judged coloristic effects and elegance from a modern-piano God.”

    Ouch! Perhaps this evidence-free aspersion – casting the extraordinarily expressive pianism of Martin Helmchen as narcissistic – is itself a reflection, projected onto the absorbing young musician. Myself, I hear an Apollonian clarity and rigor in Helmchen’s performances, here and elsewhere, that along with his appearance and total engagement puts me in mind of Pollini at the same age, in the late 1970s. Make no mistake: this pianist is feeling it!

    What I’ve seen thus far is a magnificent pianist in love not with his own beauty, but with that beauty made possible for him by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Dvořák…not to mention the Steinway family.

    Comment by nimitta — November 19, 2017 at 11:55 am

  14. One more thing: this review by Leon Golub was colorful, informative, and apt, as usual. I couldn’t agree more with his introductory summation: these pieces were “presented as we’ve never heard them before.” As I sat spellbound, the wish briefly flashed across my mind that Beethoven (and perhaps Mahler, too) had somehow lived to hear these performances.

    Comment by nimitta — November 19, 2017 at 12:05 pm

  15. Sam, Jonathan,

    You raise such an important question. In your view, is there room between “too pure for meaning” and “Program”? Certainly, something like a (problematic) “Programmatic turn” happens with Berlioz, but when we listen to Beethoven, we sense that there is content, meaning. I agree with you that it is not some kind of (restrictive) linear story, it emerges from the live performance with the sort of open-ended and ever-renewed character of myths. As you nicely point out, there is no “story” to the myth of Prometheus — there is only the magnificent presence of divine fire and the awareness that it could easily have been absent. Decisions about phrasing, dynamics, how a note is shaped and projected, all bring about a perspective, an interpretation. If there were no “content”, how would we be able to speak of interpretations, different “readings” of the same score? And when Mahler, turning away from Strauss and “programmatic” music, speaks of “absolute music”, this, too, is assigning a meaning to music — namely that it communicates through beauty, through its own expressive means, transcending the restrictive power of words to remind us of broader realms of meaning (without which words themselves could not signify).

    Comment by Ashley — November 19, 2017 at 12:14 pm

  16. At Friday afternoon’s concert, the encore was by Bach, but I didn’t recognize the piece. Does anyone know what it was? (Not Schumann)

    Comment by Ann Scott — November 19, 2017 at 1:40 pm

  17. Thank you, Ashley, for your thought-provoking questions that beautifully adumbrate how complex it may be to listen to a piece of music.

    I look forward to thinking about what you wrote.

    Meanwhile…here is a gem that serves only as a pleasant ornament to this discussion:

    With this music, the composer doesn’t allow the listener much of a chance for programmatic wiggle-room.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — November 19, 2017 at 1:55 pm

  18. Ha ha, that’s marvelous! I especially liked the sorrowful tone of “L’ecoulement du sang” — I had no idea that Marin Marais had composed this. Thank you!

    Comment by Ashley — November 19, 2017 at 3:12 pm

  19. : … I’ve always enjoyed reading Shaw’s writings as a music critic, even when he claimed that Elgar was superior to Brahms.

    Comment by Leon Golub — November 19, 2017 at 11:23 am”

    Shaw has a point.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 19, 2017 at 9:46 pm

  20. Instead of getting lost in Shaw you critics, why not get lost in Beethoven and Mahler. Lee Eismann hit it closer to the head- why not get into conveying Beethoven and especially Mahler who created a true work of art, with a full range of feelings hardly any of it heard in the playing as the two
    narcissists at the helm hardly conveyed the music as it is intended in notes , themes and underlying feelings. Both were travesties, and indeed both Beethoven and Mahler were not served
    and indeed that is what music playing is all about, as best anyone can do. There are so many
    wonderful performances of both pieces out there. Why not learn from what is wonderful and give
    a live audience a sense of the compositions, not some razzle dazzle.

    Comment by hal cohen — November 19, 2017 at 11:45 pm

  21. Ashley asks: You raise such an important question. In your view, is there room between “too pure for meaning” and “Program”?

    A sensible question that leaves me flummoxed….and thank you for it.

    Search as I might, I can’t come up with any music that is “too pure for meaning.” Any piece of music provides the listener with a “programmatic “shell “ in which they may insert their own fiction.” (I put this last in quotes because I have lifted it from a previous post I recently contributed to this forum in regards to a Haydn Symphony.)

    In my callow youth I thought it shameful that any music I heard triggered unwanted programmatic thoughts.
    Frantically, I would try to bat them away and resume my pilgrimage. With bass viol in hand, I came to Jacobean consort music. What could be more pure and removed from the hurly-burly of the world than this?

    What does this remarkable stuff have to do with the world beyond music? No honest person could accuse this music of carrying even a trace of programmatic baggage. Doesn’t it’s sublimity come from the fact that it is simply music and nothing more? With exquisite taste and a master’s touch, John Cooper takes splendidly abstract points of imitation and plays around with them…turning them upside down, elongating them, truncating them; weaving them into a fabric beyond the world.

    This was my place. I had found it.

    Not so fast Bubba.

    “Play”. “Fabric” “Weave”.

    Guess I had better keep looking.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — November 20, 2017 at 10:16 am

  22. So nice to have a thought provoking comment by Ashley and an introduction to Jacobean consort music with a purity of its own. It is so different in texture to the Mahler that is the basis of this discussion but one can sense a search in it to free oneself and others mercifully from as you put it the hurly burly of this world. Mahler’s music, in this instance the 1st of his symphonies is deep into this world as much as using the discoveries in it to distill an essence of goodness, lightness and depth both out of this world matrix. God alone knows how earthly and unearthly is the sense of the music, shatters old conceptions for sure. My gripe was the performance was shallow, a skirting through the music and its depth and impact. When Haitink conducted this piece a year ago with the same magnificent orchestra he brought Mahler to life. This shot around he was not heard, even in echo. Too bad for the audience and for me too. Ashley, I appreciate your going elsewhere into the sublime but I wanted the sublime in Mahler to be in the performance but it wasn’t except in the allusion to the real Mahler without bringing him back to life. My thoughts and no one but Lee Eiseman expressed feeling or hearing it this way. Too bad.

    Comment by hal cohen — November 22, 2017 at 10:00 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.