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Genial Tales, Puppet Rites, and Violin Expressivity

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Baiba Skride (Robert Torres photo)

Richard Specht (in the preface to the Eulenburg miniature score) calls Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, op. 28, “surely the most genial humorous tale ever written in sound.” Genial and humorous, definitely, though with tragedy too — do we really want the irrepressible, bumptious Tyll Owlglass to perish ignominiously on the gallows? This surpassingly brilliant orchestral piece from 1895 uses the largest orchestra Strauss had written for up to that time, and with a virtuosity that must have staggered the first listeners as much as it did the players who had to produce it. (Think of these “merry pranks” coming just one year after Debussy’s Faune dazzled the Parisian audience, and what a difference in character between the two works, symbolizing, if you like the difference between German and French civilizations.) The subtitle says, “in rondo form,” but this too is a joke. There are two essential themes: the 4/8 violin melody at the very beginning, and the 6/8 horn melody that begins five bars later. Both of these are transformed and manipulated in wonderfully imaginative ways along the Lisztian model, with different rhythms and tempi, all the way to the moment of Till’s dying D-clarinet shriek as his immortal soul leaps up to Heaven (or wherever).

The Boston Symphony gave a thoroughly invigorating account of this colorful masterpiece. We remember that Strauss at age 31, already a master of orchestral imagination and a conductor with years of experience, had at his ready command in Germany, some of the best orchestras the world has ever seen, and he had a completely professional sense of what would sound good. Yet even in Till Eulenspiegel, some things don’t quite work, and some music seems slightly unhinged; every performance has to watch out for: the staccato low brass at mm. 344-365 where too-forceful fortissimo makes it hard to hear the pitches, and the crazy-atonal full-orchestra harmony at mm. 558-566 (just before the big D major six-four chord introducing the snare drums at the gallows). But we enjoy the wild sound of these moments, notwithstanding that the tuba, which is superbly ponderous in the low register, tended to be too loud when in the upper register, protruding through the rest of the texture; and the D-clarinet shriek at the moment that Till is hanged wasn’t loud enough. (Does this famous moment ever make use of a doubled clarinet? Footnote, sidebar: Stravinsky’s changed his use of the ff D clarinet in the Prelude to The Rite of Spring years later, to an E-flat clarinet. Point taken.)

Sebastian Currier’s Aether for violin and orchestra, a Boston Symphony co-commission with the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, received its premiere performance with Baiba Skride as the violin soloist. It is an impressive work and one hopes for a recording. The titles of the movements, and their typography, indicate the overall form: “ethereal — I. Mysterious — ethereal — II. Lyrical and aggressive — ethereal — III. Sustained and expressive — ethereal — IV. Energetic and intense — ethereal.”  The “ethereal” component is present nearly all the time, a faint, almost vanishing ppp in high strings, clusters of tones often in harmonics, like a water-color wash with clouds, and raindrop notes in the piano. The “Mysterious” movement featured a dialogue of short melodic fragments for English horn immediately echoed by the solo violin, then with other orchestra details tossed in — a wa-wa muted trumpet, a sharp single chord in lower brass. “Lyrical and aggressive” brought some of the harmonic background down to a middle register with brass while the soloist played fast 16ths and sawing arpeggios across the strings — some of this violin behavior seemed a little too obvious, and one wished for some long-line violin solo writing. The violin’s cantabile capability soon arrived in “Sustained and expressive,” which sounded even contemplative, with some major-seventh harmony in the background to remind one how tonal this music really is. In the fourth movement, “Energetic and intense,” the violin came down to earth, with a propulsive, jazzy element, regular repeated eighths in the accompaniment, plucked cellos and basses, and some bright percussion including vibraphone, and some Bronx-cheer Flatterzunge muted trombones (Schoenberg pioneered this machine-gun sound in his Five Pieces op. 16); the violin solo provided fast sixteenths in a country-fiddle mode. The final “ethereal” brought back the English horn, seemingly echoing the violin instead of the other way around, and an abundance of ghostly texture with the unlipped brass blowing air through their instruments. For all the assortment of miscellaneous gestures and color, the work added up to a convincing and memorable totality that looks forward to more performances. Baiba Skride showed a fine engagement with the music throughout, playing authoritatively and expressively, without the angry approach that many contemporary violin concertos seem to demand.

BSO bass clarinetist Craig Nordstrom receives a standing ovation after over 40 years with the BSO (Robert Torres photo)

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913), for an enormous orchestra, is widely considered the most explosive achievement in early 20th-century music, and for good reasons; but it is really in Petrushka (1911), his second Diaghilev ballet, that Stravinsky made the boldest forward leap in imagination, just one year after Firebird and its comfortable Russian orientalism launched him to immediate fame. Petrushka is also an ideal story ballet, and the story has to be kept in mind throughout the listening experience if the music is not to seem totally chopped-up and disoriented. The Boston Symphony’s performance featured the 1947 reorchestration for a slightly smaller ensemble (triple instead of quadruple woodwinds; one harp instead of two; three trumpets instead of paired trumpets and cornets). Stravinsky called this version “much more skillful,” but this can only be for reasons of efficiency; the 1911 version, which is still preferred by many (myself included), is hardly lacking in mastery, and of course much what appears in the later version shows no difference at all. One typical detail: at No. 151 in the 1947 version (No. 76 in the 1911 score), when Petrushka appears in the Moor’s room, the muted trombone plays the motif; in the original, it’s a low muted trumpet in A, which certainly sounds better, Stravinsky’s preference notwithstanding.  A subtler point: at No. 240, the 5/8 section near the end of the fourth-tableau dances, it was impossible to discern any pitches in this low-register tumult (melody in unison cellos and basses ff, trombones and tuba f). There is a partial doubling, G and B flat, in the timpani, marked f in the 1947 version but only mf in the 1911 score. This may have made the difference: perhaps the drums drowned out the tone of the brass and strings. Is this a fielder’s choice?

Andris Nelsons conducted with precision and restraint throughout. I could only admire his close and necessary attention to bar and phrase. He sometimes resorted to knee-bending, but only seldom; often he held the railing at his left with his left hand; sometimes he would hold the baton in his left hand mid-shaft and beat time and shape with his right. All of these are permissible with results such as came on this night.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

4 Comments »

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4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. To what does the header-phrase “…Savage Rites…” refer, in this review? Did the header-compositor think that Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” was performed at this concert just because it was mentioned at the beginning of paragraph four in the review? There ain’t no “savage rites” in Stravinsky’s “Petrushka.”

    Comment by Alan Levitan — May 3, 2019 at 7:08 pm

  2. oops…the headline editor has been fired

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — May 3, 2019 at 8:42 pm

  3. I concur with Dr. DeVoto that “Aether” deserves to be recorded, and with Zoë Madonna, in the Globe, that it should be programmed again. To me, it was easily the highlight of the evening.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — May 3, 2019 at 9:31 pm

  4. Why not at Tanglewood ? Why isn’t the summer audience being the given the same opportunity to hear the fantastic Currier piece? The BSO is redoing the Stravinsky, (I know-‘standard repertoire Gershwin’),
    but come on here.” Aether ” was a big deal commission for the BSO. Is this not beyond the ” Festival of Contemporary Music ” scenario. Probably preaching to the choir here, but I felt it worthy of comment.
    Thanks to Currier – Skride – Nelsons and the BSO. . .

    Comment by Ron Barnell — May 5, 2019 at 1:57 am

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