in: Reviews

January 12, 2019

Gnarly Thursday, Delicate Friday at the Hall

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Like many BSO weekends that feature some gnarly modernist music, this one spares the delicate ears of the Friday afternoon attendees from untoward provocations, while rewarding Thursday and Saturday audiences with some intriguing repertory and interpretive choices, concluding with a cathartic reading of a popular classic.

Guest conductor Sir Andrew Davis began with the Symphony No. 2 (1987) by local eminence John Harbison, part of the BSO’s commemoration of the latter’s 80th-birthday year. It’s interesting and gratifying to hear significant American music performed by foreign guest conductors; a lot of a country’s music tends to get bottled up in its place of origin, no matter how worthy it is, and one hopes that exposure by foreign conductors to it even here will open the doors to it elsewhere.

For our part, we started out with something of an advantage in having reviewed two prior performances, including the BSO’s only previous one, both in 2010 (it really doesn’t seem so long ago). For that reason, and because a lot of our remarks about it then were fairly descriptive, we’ll just point you to those essays here and here for that purpose. Suffice it to say here that it is structured in four attached movements that together intend to follow the course of a day, thus combining the structural resources of a symphony with the affective pictorialism of a tone poem. Hearing it again, we reflected on how its trajectory from dawn through darkness, runs relentlessly down, and the musical materials emphasize this, chiefly by having all the principal motivic ideas pointing down. This begins with the trumpet annunciation of the “dawn” motif of a descending minor third, and follows through in each of the four attached movements with similarly structured interval sequences. Second, the day that Harbison was depicting must have been a New England winter day, since the dawn and daylight hours occupy only a third of the work between them, with dusk and darkness comprising a third each. Third, the second movement, which essayist Robert Kirzinger described as standing in place of a scherzo, suggests almost a social satire of daylight time supporting an attitude of confrontation, full of bustle and violence. Musicians seldom talk about their “day jobs” with much affection, and Harbison’s scherzo, if that’s what it is, has the bite and sting one hears in, for example, the scherzo of Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony or almost any scherzo by Shostakovich. Finally, if our nighttime hours were as noisy as those reflected in the fourth movement, we’d complain to the neighbors.

None of this is to belittle Harbison’s achievements, which include some spectacularly effective orchestral writing and passages of immense appeal, such as the fluttering woodwinds and the duet between strings and tinkling percussion, both in the dusky and “lambent” (Harbison’s designation) third movement, and the peculiar “lion’s roar” that precedes the finally calm and hymnic close of the fourth movement. Still, the symphony’s particularly severe mien, even in contrast to Harbison’s other work, lodges it in our mind as a true 20th century modernist artifact. It is also possible that our difficulties Thursday night had more to do with the performance than the piece. Davis did stress the lyrical features of the writing, shaping lines and arcs to convey both architecture and motion, and brought out the ample color in the scoring. Without seeing the music it’s impossible to know how Harbison marked the dynamics, but one thing we found disappointing in Davis’s interpretation was the lack of truly quiet passages. And for whatever reason, Davis did not succeed in unpacking the dense textures, which at some points rose to nearly the level of the Ives Fourth Symphony, without the threads of recognizable melody to guide the ear. While the audience responded to the performance with respectable enthusiasm, only when the composer took the stage did it rise.

Davis returned with pianist Alessio Bax (Italian by birth and upbringing, resident in New York, and, yes, a descendant of English composer Arnold Bax) for an interestingly laid-back and subtractive read of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491. For a superb description of this popular and revered concerto, considered by many to be Mozart’s finest, go no farther than its entry in Wikipedia, here. That essay also provides ample background on the interpretive issues that surround any performance of it, and that’s where the Bax-Davis rendition perked up one’s ears. Starting with its first movement, with its meandering chromatic “12-tone” theme and peculiar interpretation of classical concerto form, this was a strikingly un-stormy and un-stressy reading. Tempos were moderate, dynamics subdued, and Mozart’s expanded wind section rose above the fray. Clearly, he meant to de-romanticize our understanding of this concerto. Bax, with perfectly even touch in all the passagework, showed eloquent elegance rather than the demonic. His fairly brief cadenza stressed, appropriately, the minor-sixth relation in the principal theme. The simplification process was in many ways most notable in the serene slow movement, where, despite the pleas of Alfred Brendel mentioned in the Wikipedia entry, Bax resolutely failed to adorn the bridge passage in the center of the theme, on either of its appearances. Did this represent faithfulness or discourtesy to Mozart? The variation finale (we wonder if Arthur Sullivan cribbed from its theme for an important passage in HMS Pinafore) took its Allegretto tempo marking quite seriously and was presented with a stylish grace in keeping with the overall tenor of the performance. The minor mode notwithstanding, this was exactly the sort of finale one loves in a Mozart concerto; Bax and Davis made their case for it as well as anyone could.

Thee blog entry we mentioned last week in discussing Mendelssohn’s first piano concerto also singled out Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 5 in D Major (1943) as a formerly popular work currently neglected. That surprised us, as we’d thought it remained the second most popular RVW symphony (after the Second); maybe things are different across the pond. At any rate, Davis came back after intermission drawing forth a radiant refulgence, which reinforced our conviction that this was one of the greatest war symphonies ever. Vaughan Williams often pooh-poohed commentary that his works reflected exogenous conditions, arguing for example that the Fourth Symphony was not about Europe in the age of fascist ascendancy, but merely about F minor; but the Third Symphony clearly became his memorial to the lost generation of World War I, and the mostly quiet affirmations of the Fifth Symphony strike us as the supreme testament to What We’re Fighting For. Plainly, we’re taking issue here with the assertions in Hugh Macdonald’s essay in the BSO program book, but as they say, differences of opinion are what make horse races.

Sir Andrew Davis and Alessio Bax (Hilary Scott photo)

Davis led with unfussy eloquence, beginning with a silky string backdrop to the horn’s ethereal call answered by gentle winds. The repetitions of the main theme in the first movement came like rolling waves, while the noble second subject swelled with understated confidence. The music is not without turbulence, of course: the development dwells on a flatted, Neapolitan relationship that seems to come from nowhere obvious in the thematic material, to unsettling effect. In RVW’s orchestration and in Davis’s reading, the brasses shone. The wry scherzo, with a rather more biting trio, brought out the first truly thrilling pianissimo of the evening, indicating to us that Davis was truly committed to this score beyond the level of polished professionalism evident in the first two. The slow movement, which Davis built from wisps of half-remembered hymnody and folksong to a golden, soulful apotheosis, featured stellar work by the double-reeds, notably John Ferrillo’s oboe and Robert Sheena’s English horn, both in solo and duet. Curiously, amid the exuberant applause and multiple curtain calls at the conclusion, Davis made no call-outs to the many superb soloists, perhaps an indication that he viewed the work’s success as truly collaborative (which of course it always is; but still). The finale, a passacaglia on a folk-like, pentatonic theme, may be the best such symphonic finale since the Brahms Fourth (there is a similarly wonderful passacaglia finale on a shanty-like theme in George Chadwick’s Fourth String Quartet, for another great example of the genre). Davis gave it superb pacing and a fair degree of freedom within a rigid structure. So, if Lebrecht’s assessment is right (to be fair, he often is not), it may fall to sympathetic foreign audiences to celebrate the best English music.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

10 Comments

  1. I think Vance Koven is far too polite and going far too easy on Alessio Bax. I don’t share his reticence. Bax’s performance of Mozart’s wonderful 24th piano concerto was the single worst performance of a piano concerto I’ve heard in decades, and a bona fide contender for the worst ever (competing with Gerhard Oppitz’s awful, slumber-inducing performance of Brahms’ fiery 2nd piano concerto performed by the BSO sometime in the 1990s as I recall). How Mr. Bax was able to turn a stormy, powerful, and towering piece of music into a boring snooze-fest is awe-inspiring in the worst possible way. Bax brought us to HIP nirvana (historically-informed performance), in which expressiveness, passion, engagement, and emotion went right out the window. The less said the better. I’ll give the final words to my concert companion, an accomplished pianist in her own right: “It was boring and expressionless.”

    Let’s hope that the BSO thinks twice about bringing Mr. Bax back to Boston anytime soon.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — January 12, 2019 at 3:14 pm

  2. To put it in context: As Dorothy Parker once so famously commented, if Katherine Hepburn’s performance ran the whole gamut of emotions from A to B, Alessio Bax’s never got past A.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — January 12, 2019 at 3:21 pm

  3. Mogulmeister I think you are being way too harsh in your evaluation of Alessio Bax’s performance. You obviously know the Mozart piano concerto much better than I do, but I have attended numerous classical music concerts. It definitely didn’t seem “demonic” as described in the program notes, but it was pleasant. It wasn’t especially memorable, but I wouldn’t say that it was bad either. To put this in context,the next day(Friday, January 11),I heard Lang Lang perform the same piece with the Cleveland Orchestra in a PBS broadcast. I was shocked how much slower he played the piece than Alessio Bax. The first movement, designated allegro, definitely felt lento to me. The variations in the third movement as played by Mr. Bax were clear, where Lang Lang’s variations were amorphous. If you haven’t heard that version, take a listen! Talk about a boring snooze-fest! I would expect the decision on how to approach such a well-established piece in the classical repertoire to be a joint decision of the conductor and the soloist. Maybe the current popular approach is a more contemplative one.

    Comment by Bennett Greenspon — January 12, 2019 at 9:53 pm

  4. Bennett, I’m not a fan of Lang Lang, and I would caution anyone who would look to him to being a lodestar in anything other than simultaneously playing the piano while performing tai chi. He may one day be a great pianist but he is not today. For comparison purposes, I look backward at great Mozartians as Geza Anda, Wilhelm Kempff, Ingrid Haebler, Mitsuko Uchida (who unlike these others is still with us), and some would argue Friedrich Gulda. Against any of these or even many others, Alessio Bax is not even in the ballpark.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — January 13, 2019 at 7:55 am

  5. Lang 2 is indeed a great pianist, from the purely technical point of view. Anyone who understands the mechanics of playing the piano at such a level must concede he has more equipment than he knows what to do with. However, as a musician, as an artist, he is uneven at best, tasteless at worst.
    Re: Bax, I listened to the exposition of the Mozart and turned him right off. Of all the great artists who play this work -including many outstanding local ones- why would Fogg and Company offer such a plum assignment to this guy? (Wouldn’t be his movie star looks, would it?)

    Comment by Hans Lick — January 13, 2019 at 3:42 pm

  6. Mogul as far as I can determine Ingrid Haebler is 92.

    Comment by Bennett Greenspon — January 13, 2019 at 7:57 pm

  7. Hans Lick (clever name, BTW), consider yourself fortunate that you had the ability to simply turn it off. I was in Symphony Hall and had to endure it. It honestly made me angry that the BSO had programmed someone so obviously undeserving of being there. And your comment about Tony Fogg is entirely appropriate. My best guess is that Bax slipped through the cracks somehow, and the BSO had not properly done their homework on him. My best guess however is that the BSO now realizes this and hopefully won’t make the same mistake.

    To be fair, the BSO generally selects soloists and conductors with great care and I have confidence that if they’re putting someone in front of us, that that artist deserves to be heard. It doesn’t mean I like everyone I hear, but I rarely if ever have questioned whether or not the artist deserved to be there. But Alessio Bax had no business playing with the BSO and simply is not a world-class performer or anything close to it yet at this stage of his career. I hope for his sake that he has the ability to grow as an artist.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — January 13, 2019 at 8:38 pm

  8. I was disappointed with Alessio Bax’s performance Thursday night – neither thrilled nor moved much – but am appalled by some of the comments here and in the Boston Globe. Mozart 24 notwithstanding, at least for now, Alessio Bax is still a wonderful young pianist with many outstanding performances under his belt. He’s an artist whose approach is notable for its directness, sobriety, and simple beauty – a far cry from someone like Lang Lang, whose mention in this context I found puzzling. Even though Bax failed to evoke much of the mournfulness, desperation, and drama inherent in K.491, mostly during the Allegro, his elegant legato and spacious clarity exalted the Larghetto, and the Allegretto finale featured some of the energy and impulse I found missing in the 1st movement. I sensed this may have even been a conscious choice on his part, to hold something in reserve for the emotional peaks of the finale – not a choice I’d agree with, but a serious one.

    The notion that the BSO and its brilliant artistic administrator Tony Fogg somehow fell short of due diligence is ridiculous. Even sillier is the suggestion that Bax was engaged for his looks (decently attractive, sure, but no movie star…except, perhaps, in some of those highly retouched publicity photos their management arranges for all the young musicians!). In fact, Bax has been performing solo recitals, chamber music (e.g., with Joshua Bell), and concertos with top-tier orchestras to significant acclaim for years. He’d already made a decent recording of this piece, too, with some of the same virtues and defects of his performance with the BSO.

    Now based on my hearing, Bax is especially eloquent in the music of Brahms and Beethoven, also excelling in the little Scriabin I’ve managed to hear. One somewhat uninspired performance here hardly diminishes my enthusiasm for his playing, or eagerness to hear him perform other repertoire soon in Boston or elsewhere.

    Comment by nimitta — January 14, 2019 at 12:24 pm

  9. Nimitta, you make a valid point that my assessment of Alessio Bax as an overall performer may have been harsh since I have heard him in only one work, whereas you have heard recordings of other performances. However, my assessment of his performance in that one work I heard, Thursday night’s concert, is completely valid as far as I’m concerned. I thought it was a lot greater than 3 standard deviations from the norm. No one anywhere that I’ve seen has posted comments that they actually liked it. And let’s go back to Vance Koven’s comments, more diplomatically stated than mine, but not in disagreement with them. I respect your perspectives in general, they come across as thoughtful and reasoned. We’ll just have to agree to disagree on Alessio Bax. I don’t want to hear him again anytime soon. His performance with the BSO made me angry because it was so awful, and I felt cheated out of what should have been a very enjoyable experience. I stand by my comment: it was one of the two worst performances of a piano concerto I’ve heard in my entire life. And trust me, that’s a LOT of piano concertos. :)

    Comment by Mogulmeister — January 14, 2019 at 1:24 pm

  10. Mogulmeister, I know you’ve stated several times now that you don’t want to hear Alessio Bax again anytime soon, and I respect that…

    …but if you do change your mind, might I humbly suggest his recording of the Brahms Ballades and Paganini Variations? To my ears, no less extraordinary nor deeply rewarding – though different, of course – than Michelangeli.

    Speaking of dreadful Mozart concerto performances with the BSO: by far the worst I ever heard was No. 23 in A, K.488, by one of my favorite pianists, Maria João Pires, on a Friday afternoon in May, 2015. The 1st movement Allegro was an absolute marvel of grace and lucidity until MJP got tangled up in Mozart’s tricky rearrangement of those 1/16 note runs and lost her place. The music came to a halt; she walked over to the podium to consult with Bernard Haitink and his score; and after some 30 seconds of study and discussion, she returned to the bench and the music resumed in mid-movement. Thereafter, unfortunately, her confidence and ease were disrupted, and the remaineder of the performance was jittery, unsettled, and powerless to capture either the poignancy of the Adagio or the joyous Allegro assai finale of what I myself regard as this composer’s sublimest concerto.

    One last word: the Brahms 1st Symphony that followed the interval was far and away the best I’ve ever heard this orchestra play. I really look forward to this weekend, when another venerable maestro, Herbert Blomstedt, has one final crack at it with our hometown band!

    Comment by nimitta — January 15, 2019 at 10:25 am

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