Death haunted last weekend’s Boston Symphony Orchestra program, which paired Tchaikovsky’s Sixth (Pathétique) with Bernstein’s Third (Kaddish). The two symphonies had never previously shared a BSO bill; the Kaddish has in fact not been performed by the BSO since Charles Munch led the North American premiere in 1964. While both works confront death, Costa Rican guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero inspired plenty of life Saturday night at Symphony Hall.
Tchaikovsky himself conducted the premiere of the Pathétique, in St. Petersburg, on October 16, 1893 (Julian calendar). The performance was not a huge success. Nine days later, the composer was dead of cholera. The symphony was given again, under Eduard Nápravník, on November 6, to a much better reception. The slow finale, marked Adagio lamentoso, gave rise to the notion that Tchaikovsky had had a presentiment of his death and had written his own requiem. Rumors even spread that he had not died of cholera but had taken poison to avoid a scandal connected with his homosexuality. In one version, a “secret court” found Tchaikovsky guilty of seducing a young nobleman and passed a death sentence; in another, Tsar Alexander III gave him the choice of suicide or standing trial for sodomy and being exiled to Siberia.
None of these stories holds up. At the time of the Pathétique’s premiere, Tchaikovsky was in good health and spirits and making plans for the rest of the 1893–94 season. He described the symphony as “the best of my works” and “the best thing I ever composed or shall compose.” One can argue over how conflicted he was about his homosexuality, but he was never likely to run afoul of Russia’s anti-homosexual statutes, in part because he was discreet and in part because he was on good terms with Alexander and counted among his friends many influential homosexuals, not least among them the tsar’s brother Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. The original Russian version of the symphony’s title, Pateticheskaya, means “passionate” rather than “pathetic.”
And yet, the trombones do quote the kontakion of the Orthodox Mass for the Dead (“With thy saints, O Christ, give peace to the soul of thy servant”) at bar 201 of the first movement. So the symphony is about death, about coming to terms with the Fate that hovered over the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. Unlike those works, it does not proclaim victory; the finale accepts whatever Fate has in store. Having done so, Tchaikovsky, like Mahler after his Ninth Symphony, was ready to move on.
His interpreters have not always been willing to let him, however. Hardly any work in the classical repertoire has been subjected to the excesses the Pathétique has suffered: outsized dynamics in both directions, tempos that range from hysterically fast to lugubriously slow. Tchaikovsky was actually meticulous in marking his score, with a dynamic range from ffff to pppppp (so his ff is not as loud as you might think) and metronome indications for every section. In theory, by following his instructions to the letter (and that includes all the incalzandos and ritenutos), a conductor could achieve a fair approximation of what he wanted.
In theory. A typical performance of the Pathétique runs something like 18:00 for the Adagio — Allegro non troppo, 8:00 for the Allegro con grazia, 9:00 for the Allegro molto vivace, and 10:00 for the Adagio lamentoso — Andante. Following Tchaikovsky’s metronome markings precisely would give timings of 14:05, 6:45, 9:10, and 7:15 — plausible in the inner two movements, which have just one metronome mark each, but far faster than seems reasonable in the outer two. So the score isn’t necessarily a blueprint for performance.
All the same, Tchaikovsky made it clear that, at MM 69, the beginning of the first movement’s second subject (popularized by Glenn Miller as “The Story of a Starry Night”) was not meant to be syrupy or sentimental. The 5/4 “waltz” Allegro con grazia (MM 144) should move along; the Allegro molto vivace (MM 152) is a march, not a gallop. And though the finale begins Adagio lamentoso (MM 54), most of the movement — including the final 56 bars — is marked Andante. Where conductors tend to wallow in grief and despair, Tchaikovsky here faces death (not necessarily imminent) with stoic fortitude.
Guerrero’s timings — 21:00, 8:30, 9:00, 11:00 — suggest a performance of anguish and self-pity, particularly in the outer movements, but what I heard Saturday was big and forceful. Richard Svoboda’s misterioso bassoon created an air of expectation for the opening Adagio, which was slow but didn’t drag thanks to Guerrero’s shaping. A big fermata (marked in the score) set the stage for the Allegro non troppo first subject, which, for a change, wasn’t too loud and gave ample room to the winds. The ritardando into the second subject didn’t start too early, and there was another big fermata (also marked) before that section, which surged and receded (the incalzandos and ritenutos scrupulously observed) in a way that made tempo irrelevant. William Hudgins’s magisterial clarinet provided a kind of envoi before the storm of the development, where again Guerrero maintained clarity without forfeiting excitement. The trombones were dark and sober in the Mass quotation; the recapitulation reached a powerful, drawn-out climax before the second subject returned, still ardent, with another fine solo from Hudgins. The 20-bar Andante mosso coda is always problematic: it feels as if it should go slower than Tchaikovsky’s 80 beats per minute. Guerrero was just a little slower than the metronome mark — which in the context of a 21-minute interpretation was just right. The passing of the final phrase from French horns to trombones was magical; you could hear the difference in timbre.
Moving like a waltz, in eight-bar phrases, the Allegro grazioso had such a strong impulse that tempo was, again, irrelevant. The Allegro molto vivace was mercurial but never muddy, the decibel level under firm control. Guerrero attacked straight into the finale (perhaps to discourage the audience from applauding the third movement’s big finish); his approach was heroic rather than funereal, a fierce love of life giving way, after the annunciation of the tam-tam (piano, as marked), to easeful death.
I could hardly believe that this performance ran nearly 50 minutes. Its architecture never sagged; it wasn’t gushy or whiny, and there was nothing pathetic about it. Guerrero simply delivered a Pathétique that was expansive as well as passionate. No easy feat.
Like the Pathétique, the Kaddish is really about living. A joint commission of the BSO and the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, the symphony, for orchestra, chorus, boys’ choir, soprano soloist, and female narrator, was completed in 1963 and dedicated to John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated just before the piece’s December premiere in Tel Aviv. The Kaddish is a Jewish prayer, recited in the service for the dead, that exalts and sanctifies God; Bernstein surrounds it with a text (which he wrote himself) in which a modern-day Moses asks God to explain suffering and accuses him of breaching his covenant with his people.
Like the Pathétique, the Kaddish comprises four movements. In the Invocation, the narrator calls upon God, but not in the usual reverent manner: “O my father, ancient, hallowed, lonely, disappointed father, betrayed and rejected ruler of the universe, angry, wrinkled old majesty, I want to pray. I want to say Kaddish.” And not just any Kaddish. She’s taking control of the conversation: “My own Kaddish.” At a time of possible nuclear war: “Is my end a minute away? An hour?” The choir sings the Kaddish prayer, in the original Hebrew and Aramaic, but Bernstein’s score offers questions, not answers.
The second movement is titled “Din-Torah,” referring to a judgment given against an individual, but here it’s God who’s in the dock, the narrator approaching “not with fear, but with a certain respectful fury.” She asks what has happened to the rainbow, the symbol of God’s promise to Noah that he would never again visit destruction on humankind. She accuses God of breaking that covenant, then acknowledges that God too suffers, whereupon the soprano and the boys’ choir sing the Kaddish to rock God to sleep, and the narrator proposes to “invent” his dream.
The third movement — marked Scherzo — is that dream, in which God is made to experience human pain. The boys’ choir sings the Kaddish once more. In the Finale, God and the narrator suffer together, re-create each other. But this new covenant is no less troubled than the old one, to judge by the final rendering of the Kaddish.
Bernstein revised the symphony in 1977, making some cuts in the music, toning down the rhetoric, and allowing that the narrator could be a man as well as a woman. For these performances, just the second in the orchestra’s history, the BSO chose to stick with the original version that it did in 1964, with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the Choir of St. Paul’s Harvard Square, soprano Mary Wilson (replacing the originally scheduled Tamara Wilson), and Laila Robins as the narrator.
One problem with the Kaddish is that, in recording especially, Bernstein’s text can overwhelm his music. He serves up some startling theology. God may have cast humankind in his own fallible image, but we’re preferable to a world of smiling, painless people. Not only do we have to believe in God, God has to believe in us, has to magnify his creation. And God cannot let us die, because if we do, then he does as well. God and the narrator emerge from the final movement as equals. When the narrator — even as a woman in the 1963 original version — says that she is no longer God’s helpless infant but has grown up, you might wonder whether Bernstein isn’t just challenging God but also his father, who never fully approved of his musical career.
Bernstein’s Kaddish score, however, is its own universe, often a tonally chromatic and disturbing one, and on Saturday, under Guerrero, it held its own. Robins delivered the text with insight and feeling (as in the way she hushed “I want to pray”), but she didn’t declaim it in such a way that it claimed your attention, and from time to time the orchestra swallowed her up like the whale swallowing Jonah. There were no supertitles, and the program provided only the Hebrew/Aramaic text of the Kaddish and an English translation, so unless you were really focused on Robins, you got the general sense that she was mad as hell at God but not the theologically idiosyncratic specifics. The Kaddish text as sung by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was almost impossible to follow, but that didn’t matter: both chorus and orchestra were so rhythmically and harmonically turbulent that the Lord’s magnification was effectively undercut, and if somehow you still weren’t clear on the concept, the tortured “Amen” left no doubt.
Mary Wilson floated her “Din-Torah” lullaby, ethereal and otherworldly—exactly as Bernstein’s star trek asks. But the TFC and the BSO starred, both crying in the depths of Bernstein’s wilderness.
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.