in: Reviews

November 2, 2018

Nelsons Shows English Affinities

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The organizing principle of this week’s BSO programs, according to the orchestra’s chroniclers, derives from how each of the three chosen works received its premiere in London. One could also detect a more integral theme in that each possessed something of a celebratory aspect.

Andris Nelsons opened this soloist-free weekend with Haydn’s Symphony No. 93 in D Major, Hob. I/93, which is the first numbered but probably the third composed of the London symphonies written for Johann Peter Salomon. It premiered at the Hanover Rooms in London in February 1792, in the second season of Haydn’s residency. Thus, by the time he wrote it Haydn had become pretty familiar with the British audience’s tastes and was gratified, and maybe a bit chuffed, to discover that he had come to London a distinguished salaryman but had become, once there, an international celebrity. At any rate, it is one of his most characteristically brilliant creations, demotic in its surfaces and by turns subtle, witty, dappled and deep in its workings.

Nelsons and the orchestra gave this a typically “public” style reading that, while not exactly ignoring the places where the harmonies bent off in more inwardly-focused ways, stressed the symphony’s geniality and witty hairpin turns, and of course the incongruous bassoon bleat in the slow movement that prefigured Haydn’s next outing, the “Surprise” Symphony (did someone tell Haydn that Brits liked fart jokes?). The demands of the next two pieces on the program perhaps encouraged many of the usual principal performers to take or be given a pass on the Haydn, so we got to enjoy the delightful work of flutist Elizabeth Ostling, oboe Keisuko Wakao, bassoon Richard Ranti, horn Richard Sebring, trumpet Thomas Siders and timpanist Daniel Bauch. Interpretively we heard nothing revelatory, but, apart from some apparent confusion over the exposition repeat in the first movement, everything remained orderly and ship-shape. Nelsons seemed very keen to dig into the downbeat in every bar of the minuet, not as though Haydn were ever derelict in his insistence on its primacy. One quibble we have is that, as with many modern orchestras (our experience here goes back to Bernstein and the 1960s NY Phil), by not scaling back its forces sufficiently—the Salomon orchestra, though somewhat large by comparison to what Haydn had at Esterháza, numbered 35-40—loses some refinement in dynamics even though observing Haydn’s markings. The only really soft music came in the setup for the bassoon; that can’t be right. That said, our notes do show that the dynamic contrasts in the finale were better, so maybe the issues will work themselves out over the course of the weekend.

The first half ended with the US premiere of a BSO co-commission with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic Foundation, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Remembering: In Memoriam Evan Scofield, completed in 2015. Scofield, who died of cancer at 26 in 2013, was the son of a frequent artistic collaborator of Turnage, American jazz guitarist John Scofield. Turnage, no stranger to US or even BSO audiences, has also a significant sub-genre of his substantial catalogue in memorial works, which include both solo, chamber and orchestral works: the germ of Remembering was in fact a piano piece, elaborated in the finale of this four-movement we’re-not-calling-it-a-symphony (Turnage has written a few of those, too).

Hilary Scott photo

Normally for a new work we’d get into describing it in greater detail than more familiar pieces, but in this case, our occasional colleague Robert Kirzinger has written such an effective and succinct essay on it for the BSO program booklet that you’d do just as well (well, better, actually) to read it here than our paraphrase (the specific description begins near the bottom of page 7). A few more scattered impressions from us are that Turnage is a practitioner of “noisy tonality,” and that his essentially lyrical gifts are enhanced by observing, in most cases, a pretty steady rhythmic foundation on top of a fine architectural sense of building a movement through scaled climaxes. The jazz elements of his writing, which apparently derive from his time working with Gunther Schuller, have elements of Schuller and also, we think we hear, of Bernstein. At any rate, the jazz components seem more authentic and essential with Turnage than with, say, Tippett. The finale is meltingly beautiful, with the violin-less string sonority at its maximum impact (it’s not every day you get to see Steven Ansell as the concertmaster!), and the hand-off of solos between Ansell and principal cello Blaise Déjardin, followed by their duet, was exquisite. The ending was a marvel of restrained dignity. The first three movements, heavy in brass and percussion (incidentally, Ostling, Wakao, Ranti and Siders remained in the first-chair seats in this piece), were not propitious for capitalizing on this string sound. Nelsons seemed highly engaged with this work, and the performance overall seemed well integrated and effective (Turnage told us at intermission that he was quite happy with the performance, though one should make due allowance for composer adrenaline).

The evening rounded out with one of the great orchestral chestnuts, Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, op. 36 (1899), the “Enigma” variations. Another possible theme for the program might be that all the works were London premieres by London outsiders: Haydn, obviously, a foreigner; and Turnage and Elgar lads from the provinces (Essex and Worcestershire respectively). The celebration in the case of these variations was of the friends he depicted in them and, in effect, of the chance (wildly successful, as it happened) for him to make his mark in the capital, and, to be candid, a bit of himself—he must have known he had a winner.

Though nothing much need be said about Enigma, the performance was very possibly the best one we’ve ever heard, receiving loving attention to color, clarity, dynamics, balance, and everything else we could want or think of to notice. It was graceful where it was meant to be (Variation 1, Alice Elgar), gruff (Variation 3, R. B. Townshend), pawky (Variation 4, W. M. Baker), noble (Variation 9, of course, the great “Nimrod” August Jaeger), and so on. Variation 7, “Troyte, ” demonstrated marvelous control even as the music was bursting at the seams, while Variation 8 (Winifred Norbury) showed superb sectional balance. The very gradual swell from near nothing to orotund eloquence in “Nimrod” made quite an impression, and the finale, the self-portrait, swelled with the requisite self-indulgence.

Remarkably, Nelsons has hitherto not shown any affinity, at least with the BSO, for English music apart from a handful of moderns (Turnage, Adès and George Benjamin). If he now proposes to turn his attention to this corner of European music, and does it as convincingly as he did the Elgar, audiences will be in for a treat.

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

  1. Spot on review. I, too, felt that Nelsons chose to keep the Haydn witty, gliding on the surface. The Turnage piece, in contrast, was gripping and moving, not to be missed! And the Elgar Enigma Variations was full of excitement and ravishing surprises.

    Comment by Ashley — November 3, 2018 at 7:34 am

  2. I went to the first Friday concert. I’ve never been so captivated by a piece that
    I’m indifferent to as I was during Enigma.
    By the time NIMROD came, thoughts of Winston Churchill giving speeches
    against Nazis during ww2 and the moron in our White House filled my head.
    I wanted to scream.

    Comment by David A. Gordon — November 4, 2018 at 11:50 am

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