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Wang Ignites Schumann; Bruckner’s Lights Dimmed

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Yuja Wang in another green dress (file photo)

Fresh off yet more Grammy Awards for their ongoing Shostakovich cycle (no complaints from this corner), Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra celebrated Valentine’s Day with a pair of love letters. Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor was, like virtually everything he composed for the piano, written for his pianist wife, Clara — he even spells out her name in the theme of the opening Allegro affettuoso. And Bruckner’s unfinished final symphony, the Ninth, is dedicated to his “beloved God.” It’s not the first time this pair have been presented in Symphony Hall — back in October of 1999, the Celebrity Series treated us to Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, with Maurizio Pollini as the piano soloist. Thursday’s presentation of the concerto, with Yuja Wang as the soloist, was quite different but no less affecting. The symphony, however, posed a bit of a puzzle.

Schumann’s piano concerto — he wrote just the one — started life in 1841 as a single-movement Phantasie in A Minor for piano and orchestra. Premiered in Leipzig with Clara as soloist, it did not meet with success. At Clara’s urging, Robert eventually expanded the piece into a three-movement concerto that premiered in Dresden in 1845, again with Clara as soloist. Since then it’s become one of the most popular piano concertos in the repertoire.

Right from the start, Schumann behaves like, well, Schumann. After an initial eighth-note E in the orchestra, the piano breaks in with a cascade of descending figures that suggest the composer’s impulsive, impetuous alter ego, Florestan. The oboe then introduces Schumann’s other alter ego, poetic, dreamy Eusebius, by way of a wistful melody that, in a normal concerto, would be the second, subsidiary theme. Here it’s the centerpiece of the movement. The first four notes are C-B-A-A; in German notation, that’s C-H-A-A — or, filling in the blanks, CHiArA, the Italian form of Clara. Recollect that the “Chiarina” waltz of Carnaval represented Clara and the meaning here is unmistakable. (The major-key form of this motif is identical to the beginning of Senta’s redemption theme in Der fliegende Holländer. There’s no question of borrowing here, however: the motif was central to the 1841 Phantasie version of the concerto’s first movement, and I don’t imagine Wagner had heard Clara play that piece by the time his opera premiered in Dresden in 1843.)

Schumann goes on in this Allegro affettuoso first movement to introduce secondary themes that sound more like energetic first themes, and to subvert sonata form while appearing to observe it. The movement is really about Eusebius and Florestan, and yet interpretations tend to minimize the contrast. Perhaps the “affettuoso” marking — suggesting tenderness and affection — has misled pianists into thinking there’s no drama here. After all, it’s 1845, and Clara has long since been won. What is there to replace the anguish and the yearning of Carnaval and Kreisleriana and Davidsbündlertänze and the great Fantasie in C? Well, Eusebius and Florestan continue to have it out, and that’s fertile ground for any imaginative pianist.

Wang belongs to that elite group. She’s relatively new to the concerto, so her interpretation is still taking shape. Last month, in a performance with Lionel Bringuier and the Staatskapelle Dresden, Florestan seemed to look about for a split second before jumping in. Thursday at Symphony Hall, he bolted from the gate. Interpretive nuances aside, Wang understands that this is a Romantic piano concerto. Her Eusebius, as represented by the CHiArA theme, felt spontaneous and personal, and in the first movement with Nelsons directed a conversation in which Eusebius and Florestan would, from time to time, exchange masks.

The orchestra, at an appropriate size, just some 40 strings (the Bruckner would have close to 60), allowed winds and trumpets and French horns to project well. Warm and intimate to begin with, Nelsons eventually grew militant and heroic in the secondary themes, as if Schumann were strutting about. The solo-piano beginning of the development, which Schumann marks “Andante espressivo,” was all moonlight, and Wang’s playing in the first half of the cadenza recalled the passionate first movement of the Fantasie. The coda, where the time signature shifts from 4/4 to 2/4, became a children’s march, or perhaps Schumann’s Davidsbund marching against the musical Philistines. Toward the end Nelsons made it sound almost spooky.

Schumann titled the 2/4 second movement Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso and supplied a metronome mark of 120 eighth notes to the minute. Since the movement comprises just 108 measures, that works out to a timing of just under four minutes. The only pianists I know who’ve done it in less than five are Guiomar Novaes (4:22!), Andreas Staier (on an 1850 pianoforte), and Angela Hewitt — but the point is that Schumann really meant this to be an intermezzo and not a slow-movement romance. The piano starts up with a rising four-note figure and the orchestra follows; it’s Clara and Robert playing musical tag in a teasing movement that harks back to Kinderszenen and looks ahead to the Album für die Jugend.

Wang took those first four notes with supreme lightness, and Nelsons answered as if finishing her sentence. The movement ran about five minutes, but it had the long arc that I think Schumann envisioned. The middle section finds the cellos sighing and the piano responding with amusement. Here Nelsons seemed to be Romantic Robert and Wang a more practical Clara with a household to run and (by this time) three children to look after, not to mention her career as a concert pianist.

The Allegro vivace finale, in 3/4, is a romp that occasionally marches and toward the end wants to waltz. Apart from the transition from the Intermezzo, which reintroduces the CHiArA theme, I’ve always found it the least distinctive movement of the concerto, and that was true Thursday. In his 1953 Deutsche Grammophone recording with Rafael Kubelik and the Berlin Philharmonic, Géza Anda plays the cyclic digressions with what sounds like no pedal; the effect is as effervescent as champagne bubbles. Wang’s pearly fingerwork in these passages was spirited but more conventional. Also conventional was the 10-minute time span. The movement runs 881 measures, which at Schumann’s metronome mark of 72 dotted half-notes per minute works out to more than 12 minutes. One can always question Schumann’s metronome markings, but here the more relaxed feel of Anda’s 10:55 and Hewitt’s 11:38 might be closer to what he had in mind.

In her encore, Giovanni Sgambati’s arrangement of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, as in the concerto, we found her rhapsodic but never self-indulgent.

Nelsons is actually under Deutsche Grammophon contract to record two symphonic cycles: Shostakovich with the BSO and Bruckner with his other orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus. So far it’s the BSO Shostakovich discs that have garnered all the Grammys, but the Leipzig Bruckner releases (Nos. 3, 4, and 7 so far) have been creditable, and the contract means more Bruckner in Symphony Hall — a consummation devoutly to be wished. Nelsons’s predecessors — from Koussevitzky and Munch on through Leinsdorf, Steinberg, Ozawa, and Levine — have not been big Bruckner proponents, though RCA did release a fine BSO/Steinberg performance of the Sixth from 1970.

Bruckner’s Ninth is as cosmic as the Schumann concerto is personal. Had he finished the fourth and final movement, it would have run close to an hour and a half. Like Beethoven’s Ninth, the symphony begins in D minor, and like that Ninth, it opens on a string tremolo, the oscillation of the quantum universe. The first subject group alone has eight elements (as Derek Watson pointed out, “There are more things of heaven and earth than were ever dreamt of in any other first-subject group”), climaxing with three tremendous octave crashes into the Pit, the last of which drops from E-flat to a momentary D before recovering to E-flat. Rescue arrives via the lulling cradle song of the A-major second subject, but the underpinning seven-note ostinato in the second violins betrays the composer’s counting mania. The third subject, back in D minor, finds the first violins obsessing over D while an ominous descending ostinato develops in the clarinets and troubling harmonic vistas unfold.

Bruckner eschews development in favor of counterstatements where the original themes appear in new and increasingly alarming colors; it’s as if our mission were, in T.S. Eliot’s words, “to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” The cacophonous climax finds the first violins clinging to a stratospheric B-flat while the French horns and violas get claustrophobic. The coda begins with a menacing drumroll and a mist of anarchic mutterings that clear to reveal Bruckner’s dark angels processing through the thorn trees. Last Judgment hysteria mounts in the string ostinatos while the trumpets obsess on E, and when the orchestra subsides into a mock-triumphant D minor, the trumpets try to lift the movement into E-flat, their outbursts heroically, horrifically, failing as the orchestra drags them down. They might as well be Marlowe’s Faust, or Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

The jackhammer Scherzo — also in D minor, but the second violins lead another nasty, dissonant revolt with their insistent D-flat — is “relieved” by an F-sharp Trio that slithers about the Garden with its apple. The E-major Adagio, straight out of Caspar David Friedrich’s Arctic Shipwreck, opens on an upward-leaping ninth that withholds the security of a home key. Religious consolation is attempted by a second subject in A-flat (the home key of Parsifal), but the movement persists in its lonely pilgrimage through icy wastes to an illusory oasis that looks ahead to The Ten Commandments (you can practically hear Cecil B. DeMille intoning, “And Moses dwelt among the shepherds of Midian . . . ”) and then a chromatic nightmare (seven of the 12 notes of that scale fused in a single death’s-head chord). It all limps home to a humpback-whale-soothing E major via allusions to the Miserere of Bruckner’s D-minor Mass, the Adagio of his Eighth, and the opening phrase of his Seventh. The finale, to judge from the fragments he left, would have been apocalyptic.

The Bruckner Fourth that I heard from Nelsons and the BSO in November of 2017 blazed and flickered, ebbed and flowed, everything in place and with ample air around the discrete sections. At 68 minutes, it had room to expand and explore. This Ninth seemed compressed and congested. It was relatively quick: 24 minutes for the opening “Feierlich, Misterioso,” 10 for the Scherzo, 22:30 for the Adagio. Yet conductors as disparate as Karajan and Furtwängler have gone faster and made more apparent sense. It was the logic of Nelsons’s reading that eluded me.

The opening French-horn call slid by without apprehension, and there was no awe in the build-up to the octave crashes. The “Feierlich” marking indicates “Solemn,” but Nelsons drove forward as if he were challenging the heavens rather than exploring them. The second subject is marked “Langsamer” (“Slower”); here he actually picked up the pace. And the “Misterioso” third subject was anything but. Where Bruckner creates blocks of subject matter each with its own tempo, Nelsons let one bleed into the next. Tempos merged, shape wasn’t apparent, the big climax was noisy rather than dissonant, and the coda, perhaps the most frightening thing Bruckner ever wrote, just rolled along.

Nelsons’s Scherzo was good enough, even with a less than seductive Trio. His Adagio was not. The movement is subtitled “Langsam, feierlich,” and here Bruckner becomes more chromatic than ever, the harmonies stranded in space, looking everywhere for their Creator. The conductor is invited to join the composer in wondering where all this is going. That can reasonably take some 26 minutes. Nelsons, without wonder, seemed to know where he was going, and maybe he did. I just wasn’t able to follow him.

Nelsons and the BSO will repeat this program Friday February 15 at 1:30 p.m. and Saturday February 16 at 8 p.m.

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.

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  1. I agree with Jeffrey Gantz’s general assessment of Bruckner’s 9th on Thursday night, but I’ll go much further. If you can imagine a performance of Bruckner’s 9th without the terror, horror, awe, mystery, sense of wonder, beauty, and profound yearning, you have a very good approximation of what Andris Nelsons gave us. I’ve heard Bruckner’s 9th performed live over the years close to a dozen times; this was easily the worst, and also the worst concert I’ve ever heard from Nelsons. It was a performance where the notes were devoid of meaning, with no purpose other than to be loud, soft, or in-between. It was an epic fail. There was no sense of spirituality in the performance at all–and to be looking at the big picture, I have yet to hear that in any of Andris Nelsons’ Bruckner. It was in a rush to go nowhere. The orchestra sounded like they were asleep or really just didn’t care, but I don’t believe that was the case because their playing in the Schumann was amazingly alert and musical. I think they just gave Nelsons what he wanted. I didn’t think Bruckner’s 9th could be performed this poorly.

    I will take one exception to Jeffrey Gantz’s comments: Seiji Ozawa, at the end of his BSO tenure, gave us a live performance of Bruckner’s 9th that was truly for the ages. I caught the 4th concert in the cycle, the Tuesday night performance, and it was one of the greatest performances of anything I’ve ever heard–and coming from the most unlikely of sources, because Ozawa is on no one’s lists of great Bruckner conductors. But unlikely or not, he gave us the single greatest Bruckner 9 I’ve ever heard, with such unbelievable involvement from the orchestra–the complete opposite of what we heard Thursday night. Over the years I’ve run into two other people who were at that exact same concert, and both spoke about it in the same awe-inspiring terms as I do. I wasn’t imagining anything. And I believe there is a reason why lightning struck. As I much later learned, near the end of his life, Herbert von Karajan, Ozawa’s friend and mentor, knew his death was approaching and asked Ozawa to perform Bruckner’s 9th with the Berlin Philharmonic in his memory after he passed. The Boston performance of Bruckner’s 9th happened I believe 6 months after the Berlin concert. Knowing that fact as I know it now, there is no question that it was a deeply personal and emotional experience for Ozawa even in Boston because of that context, and it came across stunningly in the performance. It’s easily one of the five greatest concerts I’ve heard in my entire life.

    As for Yuja Wang and the Schumann, I guess the most appropriate comment to make is this: She actually owns some long dresses too.

    I believe she’s a serious artist and I’ve heard greatness in her playing on occasion. But while there was real beauty and nobility in the Schumann last night at times in the 2nd and 3rd movements, the 1st movement was utterly distorted by her bizarre interpretation. She played as if electrodes were wired to her seat and periodically delivered shocks, leading to frenzied, hyper-rushed outbursts, or the extreme opposite, completely distended phrases stretched out beyond recognition, at pains to reach even the next note. It felt schizophrenic and it didn’t come close to working. The orchestra, however, accompanied beautifully. Oh well…

    Comment by Mogulmeister — February 15, 2019 at 5:49 pm

  2. It’s interesting to read such differing impressions of a performance as those of Jeffrey Gantz and Mogulmeister. I’m eager to hear the broadcast of the Saturday evening concert.

    As for Mr. Gantz’s mention of previous BSO music directors conducting Bruckner, I remembered hearing Leinsdorf’s performances of at least two of the symphonies. Checking the orchestra’s performance history website, I found that that he conducted a Bruckner symphony in every season of his seven-year tenure, including numbers 4,6,7,8, and 9.

    Comment by George Hungerford — February 15, 2019 at 9:07 pm

  3. Klaus Tennstedt also had some outstanding Bruckner performances with the BSO.

    As for YW, this wide-eyed, rather uninformed profile might enlighten a little, as well as amuse:

    https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/05/yuja-wang-and-the-art-of-performance

    Comment by davidrmoran — February 16, 2019 at 12:51 am

  4. Does anyone know the status of Malcolm Lowe? In three concerts thus far, including this one, he was not leading the violin section. thanks.

    Comment by Michael Blim — February 16, 2019 at 11:27 pm

  5. Wang Yuja has a special sense of rhythm, which is the source of her undeniable talent in Prokofiev. I said good things after her PC2 concert with BSO.

    I went the symphony hall on the night when she wore the sparkling green dress. I don’t think it is just my obsession that she pushed Schumann’s work into a more modern era, sth like Prokfiev’s era. Listen to the 1st movement. I initially thought Wang and the orchestra had different ideas in their minds, but I was soon convinced that they CONSPIRED to produce what they produced. Leaving out the romanticism from this work is not a success. Third movement, again the youthful Schumann I am familiar with disappeared from her fingers. Any day, I love Schumann much more than her.

    BTW (nothing malicious here), it is fair to say, in this PC, the flute is not as important as the clarinet, or the oboe.

    I used to be upset with BSO ‘s (and Nelsons’) failure to programme B5. But there seems to be wisdom in it, since an unprepared and unready B5 concert would only enrage ‘a lot of’ Bruckner admirers (I am one of them).

    This is the 3rd B9 (one by BPO) in recent years. The BSO still sounds like fresh (new) to this work. That is not surprising, because they are only the instruments of the conductor. One can tell from the conductor’s gestures. When he had deeper feeling towards the works, for example the early classics Tchaikovsky 5, Brahms 2, his body and gesture were much smooth and coherent with the music. When he does not have enough to say, his body is stiff. The sound of ‘cathedral’ need structural support. The imbalance between instruments in many places does not project firm belief. The 1st movement was the worst, but the woodwinds sounded comical in the 2nd.

    Having said all that, I found tears on my face at the end of the symphony. No matter how they performed, this work itself is eternal. My intense listening shaped the effects better in my mind. What a noble way to leave the world like that! regardless one being catholic or not.

    Comment by Thorsten — February 17, 2019 at 8:49 am

  6. Thorsten, your comments about the Bruckner were really interesting. I never “read” Nelsons’s body posture as you have, but I believe you’re on to something. I would have thought that even though Andris Nelsons certainly has very limited experience performing Bruckner as compared to Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, etc., I would have thought/hoped that the 9th would be easier for him than many other Bruckner symphonies, and that he’d be further along than he showed us in the Thursday night concert I heard. But we heard this similarly, although you were able to transcend the (severe) limitations of the performance in a way that I wish I could have.

    I accomplished the same thing in a different way, however. On Friday, late afternoon when everyone was gone from the office, I put on my favorite recording of Bruckner’s 9th conducted by the great Carlo Maria Giulini and performed by the unreachable Vienna Philharmonic, and played it at a suitable volume (only possible because no one was around). I had the intense experience I had hoped for Thursday night.

    I just feel so fortunate to know and love Bruckner’s music, and have the good fortune to be able to still today hear Bruckner greats like Karajan and Giulini perform Bruckner whenever I want to hear it. It adds so much my life.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — February 17, 2019 at 9:22 am

  7. When Klauss Tennstedt fell off the BSO podium, had he been conducting Bruckner?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 17, 2019 at 10:15 am

  8. Correction – Malcolm has not been leading the section for over a year.

    Comment by Stephanie Woolf — February 17, 2019 at 12:29 pm

  9. I agree with Mogulmeister. The audience on Sunday seemed very forgiving. For me, fortunately there are the Klemperer recordings.

    Comment by Marianne ichbiah — February 17, 2019 at 6:06 pm

  10. Reading all of these somewhat ( diverse ) opinions on performance practices enlightened me post-Friday afternoon concert attendance – to say this about Bruckner and Nelsons take on the performance of the 9th Symphony. Even admitting to the sonic marvels that Nelsons was able to elicit from the orchestra ( Brass & most especially that sustained horn closing call at the very end of the adagio ), there was truly a sublime understanding of the expressive quality of Bruckner’s music that is rare in someone so relatively young as Nelsons ( consider that your seasoned – legacy Bruckner conductors , Walter , Jochum, Karajan, et al, were in their 70’s or 80’s for the most part.) Just to say that Nelsons has the time to grow into an authoritative Bruckner interpreter in the coming years. It would be very instructive to hear the differences from the recordings of the Bruckner cycle that he is doing with the Gewandhauser Orchestra – Leipzig from the Boston Symphony performances

    I see that the Bruckner 9th Symphony has never been performed at Tanglewood. Not surprising, as I don’t feel that it is a piece that naturally fits into the ambience of the venue.

    One final piece of fluff that I must relate – Wang wore a orange gown for the Friday afternoon Schumann concerto performance. There, I have now covered all aspects of the relevant musicality of the concert!

    Comment by Ron Barnell — February 19, 2019 at 9:30 pm

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