Bombast in the service of narcissism is no vice, especially if you are a world-famous composer with an endless supply of familiar tunes to pillage, whether you’re Berlioz imagining youself Byronically or Strauss installing yourself on the heights of Parnassus. And conductors then, which of them, at the helm of a corps of 100 treble-, tenor- and bass-staffed armed musical mercenaries, could resist the temptation to wallow in Strauss’s Heroic Life?
Benjamin Zander chose moderate tempi for the Boston Philharmonic traversal of Ein Heldenleben at Jordan Hall Saturday night, bringing it in at 43:33 (almost exactly the same as Fritz Reiner with Chicago in 1954). Overall the BPO’s reading clocked-in at two minutes slower than Mengelberg’s 1928 romp and two minutes faster than Ozawa’s stately snuggle with the BSO in 1981. Every moment felt secure and right under Zander’s leadership. The windy depictions of critical carping felt more dignified than usual (perhaps to humor this writer), the swelling, chest-pounding bombast lightened with focus on destination rather than pompous self-reflection, and the depiction of Mrs. Strauss as a virtuoso of glamour, romance and manipulation came across as the perfect foil to the Straussian self-absorption.
One expects nothing less than top-drawer from every BPO section, but on this evening horn, oboe, and French horn deserve shoutouts. Let’s start with the contribution of the solo violin in the Strauss. Substituting on very short notice for an indisposed concertmaster, Matthew Vera* (3rd stand first violin), projected non-stop, drop-dead gorgeous tone, alternately flippant and ravishing, as directed. A virtual golden spotlight enwreathed him in laurels. Principal horn Kevin Owen had a surpassingly and inerrantly successful night. In the Strauss, I imagined him benevolently overseeing his justifiably conceited son (when Strauss wrote for that instrument, he often had his father’s tone in mind). The oboe webs spun out by Catherine Weinfield-Zell caught us all up in their come hitherness. Conducting Strauss poem tomes well demands artistry of rubato particularly in penetrating the goo and maintaining a semblance of good taste and the avoidance of caricature. Zander’s stickwork, as always, kept tunes running on time. The shaping seems to take place in rehearsals. How does he cue, since his left hand is less eloquent than his right? With his eyes we learned from a doting staff member.
Bombast, glorious bombast, encompassing empire and glory, as the Godlike composer celebrates himself and sings himself. Fritz Lang or Leni Riefenstahl could surely have out Fantasia-d Disney with this score if the composer had approached them in 1939 or so. What convincing propaganda it could have made with the Reich substituted for the composer.
Yet the piece ends with bucolic quietude rather than Triumph of the Will. Strauss’s indicated long hairpin diminuendo on the concluding note from p to pp for winds and brass is impossible for the brass, and unachievable. Zander employed Mariss Jansons technique of having the brass peel away gradually, leaving just the winds, who can make that diminuendo. I agree with Zander that he achieved the what Strauss must have wanted.
Comparative Gallic restraint, on the other hand, made a bracing tonic of Suite No. 2 from Ravel’s diaphanous ballet, Daphnis et Chloé which Zander programmed in the middle position. That most brilliant orchestrator introduces a lush impressionistic dawn in the grotto with stimulating mythological musings on waternyphomania from the rippling flutes and swirling upper strings. Piccolo chirpings and swelling tuttis completed a stage picture as evocative as anyone could wish for, even sans the offstage chorus, sets and dancers. One could almost summon Folkine, Bakst, and tutus. Zander managed the irresistible, erotic build to perfection, as Ravel’s layers and rhythmic complexities piled on within the surprisingly regular three and five meters.
The opener, Ginasteras’s Variaciones Concertantes, op. 23 evoked the warm Spanish climes in tonalities quite temperate for its coolish period of 1953. In stating the main theme, Rafael Popper-Keizer’s soulful cello duetted hyper-romantically with Ina Zdorovetchi’s 47-string guitar. (Yes, we know it was a harp). Their ravishing diminuendo set up the entrance of ppp divisi upper stings gradually joined by their deeper peers. An argument ensued with the brass before a jaunty dance was joined in double, then triple meter. Eight variation followed, highlighted by oboe leaps in mystical song—alternately carnival and introspective takes on the theme, ending finally in an urgent, sacred dance that drove expectations for the coming of Baal during intermission. Zander made converts of the enthusiastic house.
I commend Zander and the BPO (in its 40th year) on their exhilarating promenade through three mutually informing pieces which blended exhilaration and introspection to well-judged effect. Fun but demanding this must have been for the players!
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer
** Matthew Vera had walked into Monday’s rehearsal and was told he had to play Ein Heldenleben in 3 days! Mathew is a freelance player living in town. He started as one of the student members about 6 years ago. He wants to go back to grad school next year (he dropped out because he ran out of money) and last week asked me for a recommendation. I told him last night I’d just send the tape! He happened to have studied the part in an orchestral rep class! He adores Strauss and had absorbed all the great performances — including the 1944 Strauss (one of the best performances of the solo part). He obviously has the piece in his bones. He probably could get a job as a concert master right now! A remarkable achievement. BZ