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Programmatic Coherence and Contrapuntal Juice

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Francesco Piemontesi plays Mozart (Robert Torres photo)

The Boston Symphony concerts this weekend present at least four firsts: the first BSO appearances by English conductor Andrew Manze and Italian pianist Francesco Piemontesi (in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19), the first performance by the BSO of any music by 20th-century Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz, and the first performance of a newish “critical” (scare quotes justified in our opinion) edition of Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony by Christopher Hogwood. The program had internal coherences as well, since all three of the works played show the strong impact of J. S. Bach, and they all have principal key signatures with one flat!

We’ll begin, as the BSO did, with Bacewicz’s Concerto for String Orchestra (1948). Bacewicz (1909-1969) was born into a musical-intellectual family of apparently mixed national loyalties: her father Wincenty and her brother Vytautas identified as Lithuanian, and spelled their last name Bacevičius, while Grażyna and her other brother Kiejstut considered themselves Polish. The record seems to be silent on their mother’s views. After a promising beginning as a concert violinist ended after an accident, she concentrated on composition, adapting after World War II quite well—maybe too well—to the precepts of Socialist Realism imported into Poland by Władysław Gomułka and his cohort (though after 10 years of Communist rule and a slight softening of policy, her music adopted a grittier tone). Her music became and remained popular in the Second World, as she taught in her hometown of Łódź and piled up prizes for a quite substantial body of work before a heart attack felled her at age 59.

In 1948 she wrote both a string symphony and this concerto, which latter was an instant hit and has become her most often-played work. Its three movements begin with a vigorous baroquy bustle in D minor. Manze, a lanky and highly kinetic, if perhaps slightly pedantic, performer, adopted a strong and decisive beat, though at a tempo that seemed a bit slack in comparison to this wonderfully ripping rendition by a Polish orchestra. We’ve said it before, but the impression this music often gives is of movie music, with a splash of the lighter works of Shostakovich, like the first piano concerto. The slow movement, a sometimes mysterious nocturne was delicate with a sweet perfume in Manze’s reading, and the major-mode finale was bright and cheery, again with chromatic figures in the second theme suggesting Shostakovich but with charmingly unique and more anodyne harmonization. Manze did not milk the sound for effects, or for that matter for affect, which is to his credit. Vacation week saw many of the usual BSO principal players rusticating, and so the call-outs at the end, well deserved, were for concertmaster pro tempore Yuncong Zhang, viola Cathy Basrak, and cello Oliver Aldort.

Mozart’s F major piano concerto, K. 459 (1784) remains one of his most popular and genial, with much going on beneath the surface. Indeed, a good deal of what goes on relates to his fairly recent discovery of how the high Baroque counterpoint of Bach and Handel could enrich and deepen the current Classical developmental style. In the opening movement Manze beat a lively gait, and allowed the wind complement of flute (Elizabeth Ostling), double double-reeds, and two horns, to burble cheerfully. Piemontesi’s playing, while not indulging in anachronistic Romanticism, was rounder and more mellow than the crisp rat-a-tat that sometimes passes for authentic Classical-era style—sometimes one thinks that a kind of back-formation from Neoclassicism had taken over the interpretation of echt Classicism. This was, it seems unjust to have to say, with no loss of precision, which was particularly gratifying in the cadenza. The other somewhat novel feature of this performance was how perfectly balanced the sonorities were, with a chamber-like equality between the piano and the orchestral sections. Manze’s rhythm and corpus kept dancing with no slackening of pace. The slow movement, a not-at-all-slow allegretto, lilted, while Manze squeezed out as much lyricism as decorously possible, particularly in the purity of the oboes and bassoons. In the finale, it seemed that Manze was at pains to control the finality of phrase endings, often shading them down to near nothing. The biggest noises came in the aforementioned contrapuntal passages, which nevertheless lost none of their elegance. The briefer cadenza to this movement provided some moments of flash that Piemontesi exploited without vulgarity.

The audience responded warmly to this performance, which allowed Piemontesi to display some Romantic chops in an encore consisting of the Schubert A-flat Major impromptu from D. 935, in which he built considerable power.

The evening’s capstone was Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 (in reality no. 2) in D Minor, op. 107, the Reformation, written in 1829-30 intending to have it performed for the tercentennial of the Augsburg Confession, a foundational document in Lutheranism. He missed the deadline, so its first performance was scheduled, improbably, in Paris in 1832. As Steven Ledbetter told it in his booklet essay, the French musicians were so put off by the symphony’s Teutonic counterpoint that they caused the performance to be cancelled. This so spooked Mendelssohn that, although he did conduct a performance in Berlin later that year, he relegated the manuscript to the desk drawer, whence it was exhumed and not published until 1868. While the composer, perhaps nervously recalling the Parisian hostility, spoke disparagingly of it, it is, in the right hands, a thrilling masterpiece not only of religious conviction but of psychological depth, with the outer movements limning the public face of the Reformers’ protest and the inner movements capturing the contrasting states of bumptiousness and piety. The finale, of course, is one of the greatest and most extended of chorale preludes, in which Mendelssohn took Luther’s hymn Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” in an updated form of the Bach harmonization, and presented it in full-blown Romantic sonata form. The other “found” tune that runs through the symphony is the creedally ambiguous Dresden Amen, which dominates the first movement and reappears at critical junctures in the final two.

Andrew Manze conducts (Robert Torres photo)

The keys to getting this work right in performance are, first, an understanding of its unity, second, a right relation between the inner and outer movements, and third, an ability to avoid the temptation to bombastic overplay in the outer movements. This is where Manze’s reading went a bit pear-shaped. Except in the third movement, which he led with beautiful dynamic shaping, there were flaws of conception and detail that left the whole thing, while decent, not great. In the stately introduction to the first movement (and in its recap), perhaps in a misguided attempt to bring out interior voices, we noted for the first time in memory that when they were playing together in the Dresden Amen, the violins were covered by the violas for the first couple of notes. Every time! And Manze was, alas, led into temptation in the bombast department, maybe to offset the understatement of the other pieces on the program? The scherzo second movement seemed more like an elegant minuet than a Ländler, which is how the best performances do it (except for the trio, of course).

This leads us to a small digression on the subject of critical editions. It’s a fine idea to have scholars dig through the detritus of centuries to see where copyists’ errors or egregious emendations by overzealous conductors and earlier fixer-uppers have disfigured the composer’s intentions. But whatever other benefits the distinguished conductor and former Handel & Haydn music director Christopher Hogwood conferred as he went through the Reformation Symphony, he went beyond the bounds of editorship by adding, between the third and fourth movements, a “recitative” for lightly accompanied flute that Mendelssohn had originally written as a bridge to the chorale statement, but discarded before the first performance. As an addendum, “oh by the way, you might find this bit interesting,” sure. But shouldn’t the composer have the last word on what goes in and what comes out? Mendelssohn wasn’t wishy-washy about his decisions, the way, say, Bruckner was. So, in the event, we heard the recitative, beautifully performed by Ostling, in which Mendelssohn rather cleverly morphs the melody of the slow movement into that of the chorale. But Mendelssohn was right to cut it—it drags out the transition and inserts a cantata-like element into what Mendelssohn really wanted to be a symphonic form (unlike his Second Symphony, where the cantata tail totally wags the symphony dog, but that was very intentional).

So back we go to the finale, and while Manze diligently and energetically brought out the contrapuntal juice (after a more radical change of tempo from chorale to main movement than one usually hears—a bit jarring but one quickly forgets about it), the finesse of the dynamic contrasts evident in much else he conducted got pretty much swept aside to get to the big climaxes.

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.

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  1. Further to Vance’s description of Manze’s “pedantic” conducting style, I found it difficult to watch his didactic over-cuing, as if the players were neophytes. A Hampelmann string-puller according to an Austrian in the crowd.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 20, 2019 at 11:26 am

  2. It was a treat to have Andrew Manze in Boston. For those who missed him, some of his best conducting is available on Youtube, including in my view the most genuine and moving Vaughan Williams 5th anywhere. There was some over-cueing to be sure, not unusual for a premiere with a brief rehearsal period, but it didn’t get in the way of the performance. Apart from a varied conducting career, he is a well-known in early music circles and an advocate of period instruments.

    Comment by Stuart Kaufman — April 23, 2019 at 7:34 am

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