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.
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.