in: Reviews

February 9, 2018

BSO Salutes Leipzig

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Composer Sam Shepard bows (Michael Blanchard photo)

A “Leipzig Week” at Symphony Hall might lead you to think we’re getting another visit from the fabled Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (last hear here, under Riccardo Chailly in 2014). That’s not the case, but this week’s program from the Boston Symphony Orchestra is Leipzig flavored, as the BSO celebrates its new partnership with the GWO. The connection is the music director the two orchestras now share, Andris Nelsons. Over the next five years, the BSO and the GWO will co-commission new works, share programming, and visit each other’s cities. Already, in May 2016, Nelsons and the BSO have performed in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus, as part of a European tour. For more on the partnership, which kicked off on Monday, click HERE.

Last night, Nelsons and the BSO featured three composers associated with Leipzig. Johann Sebastian Bach worked there for the last 27 years of his life, from 1723 to 1750; he’s represented by his Concerto for Three Keyboards in D Minor BWV 1063. Robert Schumann went to law school in Leipzig, met his future wife, Clara Wieck, there in 1830, and founded the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, remaining in the city till 1844. He’s represented by two choral compositions, Nachtlied Opus 108 and Neujahrslied Opus 144. And Felix Mendelssohn was from 1835 until his death in 1847 the Kapellmeister of the GWO. He met Schumann at the Wiecks’ house in 1835; when Schumann discovered the manuscript of Franz Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, he sent it to Mendelssohn, who premiered the work in Leipzig in 1839. Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, the Scottish, concludes the program. Finally there’s the first of the Boston/Leipzig co-commissions, Express Abstractionism, from former Tanglewood Music Center Fellow Sean Shepherd, who’s now living in New York City.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that the Mendelssohn is the only one of the five works that’s ever been heard in Symphony Hall. The BSO hasn’t played the Bach concerto since 1959, and that was at Tanglewood. The orchestra hasn’t performed either of the Schumann pieces, and the Shepherd is getting its world premiere. The program was never designed to pack Symphony Hall, and it didn’t Thursday, but attendance was respectable, and the performances were much more than that.      

Scholars suspect that the Bach concerto,  scored for three keyboards, violins, violas, and a continuo duo of cello and violone, is a transcription of a triple violin concerto, now lost, from the 1710s; it’s also thought that Bach may have created it to play with his two eldest sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, at Zimmermann’s Coffee House in Leipzig in the 1730s. We do know that Mendelssohn performed the piece in Leipzig, first with Franz Liszt and Ferdinand Hiller at the Gewandhaus in 1840, and later that season with Clara Schumann and Ignaz Moscheles.

The BSO had its own all-star trio: Kirill Gerstein, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Thomas Adès. The solo keyboard parts, played here on piano, are by no means equal; the first — presumably the one Bach took for himself — has by far the lion’s share of notes. On the Symphony Hall stage Thursday, the three pianos, with their lids removed, were positioned in a wedge with the soloists facing the audience; we could see each pianist’s face but not his hands. Gerstein, who had the first part, played from memory; Thibaudet and Adès had the sheet music and page turners.

Nelson’s presided over a muscular and extroverted reading; Gerstein was particularly animated. All the same, it sounded a bit clotted. I don’t know how else the pianos could have been deployed, but with the keyboards so close together, their sound seemed to run together. Not being able to see who was playing what didn’t help, even if you’d scanned the score beforehand. Perhaps the string component of 30 was excessive; perhaps I simply missed the crispness of the harpsichords that Bach wrote for. Whatever, the interplay didn’t always come through. But Bach’s playful exuberance certainly did, the pianists making a joyous mockery of the concerto’s stern opening unison. The second movement, marked “Alla siciliana,” felt stately as well as lilting; the Allegro finale, in which the soloists play off one another and each gets a chance to shine, spun its web with delectable inevitability.    

The two Schumann choral pieces make odd as well as obscure choices, since he wrote them after he’d left Leipzig and after Mendelssohn’s death. Nachtlied, for eight-part chorus and orchestra, dates from November 1849, when Schumann was about to move from politically troubled Dresden to Düsseldorf, where the piece premiered in 1851. He set it to a poem written by Christian Friedrich Hebbel in 1836 in which the poet drifts from troubled wakefulness into protected sleep — or perhaps from life into death. Hebbel asks the “flowing, swelling night full of lights and stars” what has awakened out there in the endless distance; he feels the heart in his breast constricted, his life crowded out. Then sleep, approaching “the way the nurse approaches the child,” forms a protective circle about his “wispy flame.”

Neujahrslied, from 1849-50 and also premiered in 1851, is more political. Set to a poem by Friedrich Rückert, for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, it bids farewell to the old year and greets the new one in terms that, over the course of 12 stanzas, become increasingly more appropriate to a new ruler than a new year. The old one ruled sternly and starkly but left room for courage in the breast; the new one is urged to “lead us with might,” and it’s not certain that his reign will be limited to one year. Rückert’s final stanza exhorts us “brothers” to remain united. Schumann, who must have had the Dresden Uprising of 1849 in mind, slips the text and tune of the Lutheran chorale Nun danket alle Gott into the end of his work as a plea for rapprochement between people and ruler.

From the start, Nelsons lavished a tender care upon these pieces that I missed in the Bach. The opening of Nachtlied was slow and atmospheric, conveying the cosmic mystery of Hebbel’s infinity. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, 107 strong, sang with good attention to the German; any difficulty in following the program booklet’s printed text was due more to the intricacies of Schumann’s writing than to any failing of enunciation. The first stanza came across hushed and awestruck, the agitated second then gave way to panic as the TFC surged repeatedly on “Riesenhaft” (“mighty”), the vastness that’s threatening to overwhelm the poet. The last stanza subsided into relief, first “Schlaf” (“Sleep”) and then the “schützenden Kreis” chanted as a comforting mantra.              

For Neujahrslied, Nelsons replaced the soprano and alto soloists with semi-choruses from the TFC; that made sense, since they sing only as a duet in the second of the piece’s seven parts. His bass soloist, baritone David Kravitz, sounded light singing against the orchestra in the opening section; he shone in shaping the recitative of the fourth part, however, where Rückert directs us to look up to the courageous course and the new ruler. Even before that, in part three, the chorus had acceded, reveling in “Wir alle, die deinen, wir kommen, erscheinen, / Und beugen die Glieder, zu thun, was gefällt” (“All of us, your people, we come, we appear, / And bow before you, to do what pleases you”). After the fugato of part five, the music again opened up on “O Fürst,” and when Kravitz rose to exhort the brotherhood, the chorus overtook him at once. The piece begins and ends in heroic E-flat major; Nelsons began it as a majestic coronation and ended it as a hymn of thanksgiving, not slighting any of the sober apprehension in between.

Shepherd’s world premiere spanned just 15 minutes, but it wasn’t short on ambition. In his program note, he explains that he was inspired by a quintet of Abstract Expressionists: Alexander Calder, Gerhard Richter, Wassily Kandinsky, Lee Krasner, and Piet Mondrian. The four movements of Express Abstractionism are called: I. dense bubbles, or: Calder, or: the origin of life on earth; II. Richter, or: the rainbow inside a bolt of lightning; III. Kandinsky, and: marble and: Krasner; IV. The sun, or: the moon, or: Mondrian. What orchestra could convey this? Shepherd’s calls for piccolo, English horn, E-flat clarinet, bass trombone, and an array for 30 percussion instruments that include, apart from those you might expect, nipple gong, egg shaker, sleigh bells, log drum, brake drum, vibraslap, bongos, temple bowls, temple blocks, almglocken, maracas, claves, cowbell, and ratchet.      

That’s a lot to take in from one sitting, with no preparation. Express Abstraction began with a gong sound (the small tam-tam?) and then Robert Sheena’s incandescent English horn. The first movement actually did suggest Calder’s mobiles; it was otherworldly, and though I couldn’t make out “the origin of life on earth” in the woodwind-and-percussion-heavy score, I did believe I was hearing stars and planets. And though the fourth movement’s sinuous strings didn’t conjure the sun and the moon for me, they did create an outer space hovering somewhere between Gustav Holst’s “Saturn” and Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony. I had more difficulty with the inner movements. The second was a clockwork, with explosions from the brass and percussion; the third featured chugging strings and more explosions. Perhaps I just need to brush up on my Richter, Kandinsky, and Krasner. It would be nice to hear Express Abstraction on a program where it could be played before intermission and then again after. Or in a context where one could reflect on the artists before listening. I hope the BSO repeats it.

The impetus for both The Hebrides and the Scottish Symphony came from Mendelssohn’s 1829 tour of Scotland, which included a less-than-gratifying visit with Walter Scott. He composed The Hebrides the following year (revised in 1832); the symphony did not get on as quickly. Mendelssohn wrote home that he had got his start from a twilight tour of Holyrood Palace, where, as he notes, Queen Mary’s private secretary, David Rizzio, was stabbed to death on the orders of her jealous husband, Lord Darnley. He even drafted the first 16 bars of the symphony. But it wasn’t till 1841 that Mendelssohn found the inspiration to resume work on it. He premiered the Scottish with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1842, having dedicated it to Queen Victoria. Although it was the last of his symphonies to be completed, it was the third in order of publication, which is why it’s known as No. 3.

How Scottish is it? Although Mendelssohn called it his “Scottish” symphony in that 1829 letter home, there’s no such indication on the published score. Schumann, in his 1843 review for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, writes that, according to “a third party,” the symphony was begun “during Mendelssohn’s residence in Rome.” He makes reference to “old melodies sung in lovely Italy” and concludes that Mendelssohn “places us under Italian skies.”

Schumann was, of course, misinformed. Even so, that such an astute critic could hear Italy in the symphony has to make you wonder about the Scottish epithet that was added to the score after Mendelssohn’s death, when the symphony’s origins became better known. And yet the name has stuck. George Balanchine, for one, found ample Scottish inspiration in the music when he selected the last three movements for his Scotch Symphony, with its girl in the red kilt and young laird and sylph and regiment of Her Majesty’s Highlanders.

The Hebrides is all agitation to start, wind and water lashing the isle of Staffa. The Scottish begins quietly in the winds and violas, a brooding and mysterious A-minor Andante. The violins, when they enter, surge and stride; there are anticipations of Bruckner before the brooding recommences. This introduction lasts nearly four minutes, after which the 6/8 main theme kicks in, Allegro un poco agitato but also pianissimo. The tempo increases to Allegro assai at the first climax; the melancholy persists into the E-minor second subject. Mendelssohn lets loose only at the end, with the hint of a storm and galloping horses.

The movement subsides back into brooding but it doesn’t quite end, since Mendelssohn explicitly instructs that “the movements must follow one another immediately and not be separated by the customary long pauses.” So it’s a story without chapters. The brief F-major Scherzo, Vivace ma non troppo, begins with scurrying clarinets; it’s a rustic folk dance in 2/4 with hints of French horn. The Adagio, in a moody A major, is beset at once by those same horns plus trumpets, a warning of the coming harsh irruptions that suggest a call to arms and perhaps funeral processions. The Allegro vivacissimo finale, back in A minor, is marked “Allegro guerriero” at the head of the score, so war is in prospect, but after a furious fugal section and a battle of themes, the music switches from 2/2 into 6/8 and A major for a reconciliatory chorale coda. Based on the introductory theme of the opening movement, with echoes of the finale of Beethoven’s Sixth, it brings the symphony full circle.

Was this the right way to end it? Otto Klemperer didn’t think so. For that 95-bar coda, he substituted an A-minor conclusion based on a theme from the finale that, like Klemperer himself, is stern and unyielding. You can contrast the result in his 1969 EMI live recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with his 1960 EMI studio recording with the Philharmonia, where he performs what Mendelssohn actually wrote.

Like the Bach concerto, the Scottish can sound better on the instruments for which the composer wrote it — one example being Pablo Heras Casado’s Harmonia Mundi recording with the Freiburger Barockorchester. But for big-band modern-instrument Mendelssohn, Nelsons’s Scottish would be hard to beat. The introduction went at a proper Andante, and the violas colored the winds and French horns, as opposed to the other way round. The violins don’t enter till bar 17, but they sang out when they did, and the brass made the Bruckner anticipation palpable. The return of the opening bars was just as brooding; the exposition began gently — as Mendelssohn indicated — before building to the military storm of the Allegro assai. You couldn’t tell whether fierce nature or an opposing army was in prospect — which is as it should be. The plaintive second subject went at the same tempo but felt quite different. Like most conductors these days, Nelsons didn’t take the exposition repeat, but he compensated with a development section in which moods changed quickly and appropriately.

The Scherzo, kickstarted by a teasing clarinet solo from William R. Hudgins, was equal parts gossamer and lusty, a cheerful folk dance with warnings from the French horns. Those horns are also heard at the beginning of the Adagio. Nelsons caressed the lyric the lyric theme with great delicacy, but he didn’t short-shrift the military incursions. You could practically hear the innocence leaching out of the movement. The finale was powerful in its fugue, reflective in its winding down to a spooky rendition of the fugue theme on clarinet and bassoon, and then brave and noble — no sentimentality here — in the A-major coda. I think Klemperer might have been moved. I know I was.   

Andris Nelsons leads Kirill Gerstein, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Thomas Ades, with the BSO (Michael Blanchard)

Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.

4 Comments

  1. In the Bach concerto, it may have looked from the audience as though “Gerstein, who had the first part, played from memory; Thibaudet and Adès had the sheet music and page turners,” but in reality Kirill Gerstein also had music in front of him—on an iPad. This is evident in the photo above, and also in the video clips from this program that the BSO has posted on Facebook: (https://www.facebook.com/bostonsymphony/videos/10155402362093269/). There were also some other iPads in use on the stage: two of the trombonists in the Schumann played from them.

    In the Schumann Neujahrslied, the soprano and alto “solo” lines are sung by all the women of the chorus, not by “semi-choruses from the TFC.”

    Comment by Stephen Owades — February 9, 2018 at 6:40 pm

  2. After a few minutes of the Bach, I noticed Maestro Nelsons’ conducting technique. It looked as if he were conducting Gregorian chant: hands making undulating, sweeping, and circular movements, not precise up, down, in, out motions with the baton. Of course, the piano’s sound is less crisp that the harpsichord’s, with its instant decay. Maybe that had something to do with it.

    I found the Shepherd piece uninteresting. Unlike Mr. Gantz, at this point I’m not hoping for it to be scheduled again, although that could change if it seems better when I listen to WCRB’s rebroadcast on the 19th of this month. On Thursday, however, I didn’t notice the transitions between the first three movements, and at some point during them, I had the thought, “There is no beauty here,” The fourth movement did introduce some measure of beauty to redeem the work. But when Mr. Shepherd appeared on stage, I stopped applauding. (By contrast, when Elliott Carter appeared after one of his horror shows inflicted on us by James Levine I wanted to boo, but lacked the nerve.)

    Nothing wrong with the rest of it, except for one rather muddy statement of a theme by the violins in the Mendelssohn.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 10, 2018 at 7:08 pm

  3. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/when-felix-mendelssohn-met-queen-victoria-1305892.html

    Comment by david moran — February 10, 2018 at 10:23 pm

  4. Regarding Gerstein’s playing “from memory,” I plead guilty; I wasn’t in a position to see the iPad and made a bad assumption.

    Regarding the “semi-choruses from the TFC,” I asked the BSO press office who would be singing the soprano and alto “solos,” and that is the information I was given.

    Comment by Jeffrey Gantz — February 21, 2018 at 8:50 am

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