The second program of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2017-18 season served up three faces of Russia: the Prelude to Mussorgsky’s unfinished opera Khovanshchina; Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with soloist Alexander Korsantia; and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, given a revealing rethink. BPO director Benjamin Zander chose the material well and the elicited fine performances.
Set toward the end of the 17th century, in the reign of Peter the Great, Khovanshchina details the resistance (and its political consequences) of Russia’s Old Believers to the liturgical reforms that Patriarch Nikon had introduced in the 1650s. “Dawn over the River Moscow,” as the Prelude is known, rings changes on a Russian folk tune; in the course of the piece’s five or six minutes, you can hear the river meandering past Red Square, and the bustle of early-morning activity as the bells of the Kremlin churches toll and the sun begins to glint off the various domes and towers.
All three pieces call for exquisite wind playing, and they did get that Sunday at Sanders Theater. The principal oboe, Amanda Hardy, floated a sinuous line that the principal clarinet, Rane Moore, soon took up, and Zander created a lulling atmosphere that all but let you see (by this point in the Prelude the curtain is up) the guardsman Kuzka leaning against a column and half asleep. The church bells, well represented by the French horns, were as ominous as those in Mussorgsky’s earlier Boris Godunov, foreshadowing the bloodshed that is to come. But the Prelude moves on, untroubled, and Zander, after nudging the music with a burst of optimistic energy, brought it to a serene close.
Prokofiev completed his Third Piano Concerto in 1921, and with its insouciant sarcasm and bittersweet romance, it looks forward to his 1935 ballet score for Romeo and Juliet. In its tendency to break into marches, it looks back to World War I (though the composer had begun work on the concerto in 1913). Prokofiev called the third of the three movements an argument between soloist and orchestra, but really the entire concerto is an argument, with the piano continually challenging the orchestra.
In the opening movement, after looking askance at the orchestra’s proposal of Rachmaninovian lushness, the piano takes charge of the first theme, and then the second, its scalar passages exhibiting an energy no orchestra can match. The Tema con variazioni second movement, in E minor, finds piano and orchestra sharing the variations, but the piano gets the best of them, the haunting fourth, and after the orchestra closes in E major, the piano sneaks in a final E-minor chord. In the Allegro ma non troppo finale, the orchestra goes one way and the piano goes another, there’s a second lush outburst that the piano develops in its own way, till finally they agree to share the spoils.
The Third’s notable proponents have included Martha Argerich, who at age 76 played it in a Celebrity Series presentation last October, and, with a little help from an off-stage pianist, Amy Irving in the 1980 film The Competition. A good performance has to find a dynamic balance between orchestra and pianist, and it must have characterful winds. (A clarinet solo kicks off the first movement, and the bassoons start the finale.) Too much license from the pianist and the concerto doesn’t sound like Prokofiev; too little and the concerto is boring.
Zander and Korsantia avoided both pitfalls, and also found the right balances within the orchestra as well as between orchestra and pianist. The winds were cheeky and full of color; both castanets and tambourine were audible. Korsantia, who was born in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and is now on the piano faculty at New England Conservatory, has the formidable technique the concerto requires, and he took just enough license. Overall the interpretation seemed more sober than scintillating; his phrasing felt metronomic, though he also tended to draw out ritardandos. Some tempos galloped, such as the scalar passage at the end of the first movement, and the march at the end of the Tema con variazioni’s fifth variation. Korsantia was at his best in the second movement’s early variations, playful when marching and also when galumphing. He took the celebrated fourth variation, which seems to wander about in the woods, or perhaps among the stars, very slowly and just did hold it together.
He seemed too modest to think the performance warranted an encore, but when Zander insisted, he tossed off a 90-second miniature, the charming Allegretto from Schubert’s Scherzo D.593 No. 1.
Zander’s reading of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony felt idiosyncratic, especially in the final two movements, which went rather slowly. Zander justified this approach by citing Tchaikovsky’s written description of the symphony to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, and pointing out that the composer, stranded in Italy without a metronome, was unable to provide his score with the kind of specific markings with which he would pepper the Fifth and Sixth.
Tchaikovsky certainly gave Madame von Meck a detailed picture. The polonaise-like opening horn fanfare he identifies with Fate, and the melancholy 9/8 first theme, “In movimento di valse,” he associates with “bleak and hopeless feelings.” Better, he says, “to escape from reality and immerse oneself in dreams,” which he represents by the lilting second theme that the clarinet starts off. The swaying extension of that theme in the violins he describes as “Oh joy! Out of nowhere a sweet and gentle daydream appears. . . . Here it is, here it is — happiness!” At least, until the Fate motif returns.
Tchaikovsky had completed his Swan Lake score the previous year, and I wonder whether he mightn’t still have had the ballet’s story in mind when he started on the symphony. Fate would, of course be Rothbart, and the first theme would represent the sorrows of the enchanted Odette, held in thrall by Rothbart’s incessantly dotted rhythms. Only the swaying violin theme offers a glimpse of freedom, and whenever it appears it’s overtaken by the dotted first theme, which then erupts in passionate frustration.
The second movement, Andantino in moda di canzona, Tchaikovsky describes as expressing “another aspect of sadness. This is that melancholy feeling which comes in the evening when, weary from one’s toil, one sits alone with a book — but it falls from the hand. There come a whole host of memories.” I’m not sure what a conductor is expected to make of this; the movement itself begins with a plangent oboe solo that segues into what’s almost a funeral march, the orchestra drumming on one note the same way it does in the Fate motif.
The Scherzo, in 2/4, is the product of “whimsical arabesques, vague images which can sweep past the imagination after drinking a little wine and feeling the first phases of intoxication. . . . Amid these memories there suddenly comes a picture of drunken peasants and a street song . . . Then, somewhere in the distance, a military procession passes.” The movement begins with pizzicato strings, then slows for what you’d expect to be the Trio, where we indeed hear a tipsy oboe, a military band, and those two famous piccolo solos. But instead of a da capo repeat of the Scherzo, we get winds and brass joining up with the pizzicato strings for an upbeat conclusion.
That leads to the cymbal-saturated Finale, which integrates the Russian folk song “Vo pole bereza stoyala” (“In the field stood a birch tree”). Tchaikovsky saw the movement as offering forced gaiety: “If within yourself you find no reasons for joy, then look at others. Go out among the people. See how they can enjoy themselves. . . . Rejoice in the rejoicing of others. To live is still possible.” In the actual music, however, the “rejoicing of others” seems pretty universal. Toward the end, the Fate motif returns, but the celebration ignores it and powers on. And the folk song, with its own one-note drumming, is revealed as the germ of the symphony, and our release from Fate.
In contemporary performances, these last two movements tend to go lickety-split. The legendary Russian conductor Evgeny Mravinsky practically incinerated the Finale in his 1960 Deutsche Grammophon recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic; that set a precedent, especially among Russian conductors. (Evgeny Svetlanov has since bettered Mravinsky’s 7:54 with a clocking of 7:33.) Zander argues that this is not what the composer intended. Absent metronome marks, it’s hard to be sure what Tchaikovsky intended with his “Allegro” for the Scherzo and “Allegro con fuoco” for the finale. What he wrote to Madame von Meck doesn’t appear to call for extreme tempos; neither do his metronome marks for any part of the Fifth Symphony, or the Sixth. At the usual Scherzo tempo, Zander contends, the piccolo solos, particularly the 32nd notes, simply blur. What’s more, the military band winds up marching at MM = 138-160 rather than the Sousa rate of 120-126. One could also suggest that by “Allegro con fuoco” Tchaikovsky had in mind fireworks (all those cymbal clashes) rather than a fiery dash to the finish.
The first thing I ever heard Zander conduct was Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, somewhere around 1980, and I remember how direct and moving it was, without sentimentality or hysteria. This Fourth was similarly direct. It opened with the French horns blasting out the Fate motif, robust and sharp-edged but not in the least ugly. Zander made a sensitive transition to the Moderato con anima first theme, which was turbulent as well as melancholy, and from there he swept to the finish of the movement in one big arc. The brass heroic were in their restatements of the Fate motif; the shape of the movement was there, and the first theme roared just before the recapitulation and again at the end, where it struggles to escape.
The second theme gave me pause. Tchaikovsky marked it Moderato assai, quasi Andante, which must be slower than the preceding Moderato con anima, though how much slower, with no metronome number, is hard to say. Zander’s reading hardly sounded slower. It’s clear he was looking to avoid sentimentality; there are ample recordings in which this section meanders all over the map. Here it waltzed, a nice novelty, but it didn’t relax. The movement clocked in at a very reasonable 18 minutes, and yet it sounded breathless.
The second movement opened with another delectable oboe solo from Hardy, and Zander moved it along, in keeping with Tchaikovsky’s 2/4 time signature. The middle section, marked Piú mosso, was only a little faster, but it rose to a majestic, noble climax, and the movement was rounded off by another fine wind solo, this time from principal bassoon Ronald Haroutunian.
The norm in performances of the Scherzo is five and a half minutes; the only recording I know of than lasts even six is Otto Klemperer’s with the Philharmonia. Zander took nearly seven, giving us gently falling snowflakes instead of the usual blizzard. The difference between the initial Allegro and the Meno mosso, where the tipsy oboe enters, was minimized, so the return to Tempo primo barely registered. But the march section actually did march, and Sarah Brady got room to articulate every note of the piccolo solos. If this is the tempo Tchaikovsky wanted — and it may well be — one would want to hear the movement a few more times to get adjusted. I hope Zander is able to record it at some point.
Many conductors blaze through the Finale, as if they felt the need to compensate for Tchaikovsky’s lack of conviction. Klemperer, Kurt Sanderling, Loren Maazel, Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonard Bernstein, and Andris Nelsons, however, have all exceeded nine minutes in this movement, and in this weekend’s three performances, Zander joined them. Even if his reading wasn’t entirely new, it was entirely satisfying. It made no apology for itself, and the comfortable tempo let you appreciate the many guises (some humorous) in which Tchaikovsky presents “Vo pole bereza stoyala.” The Fate motif came and went, fading away; Zander, after allowing a suspenseful pause, resumed as if Fate had no say in the festivities. Tchaikovsky could have wished for no better fireworks at the end.
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.