IN: Reviews

Form, Formalism, Formaldehyde

by

Chloe by Bakst

Andris Nelsons amalgamated a strange evening at Tanglewood Friday of minor Mozart, undead Shostakovich, and revelatory uncut Ravel (revealing that the short suites make more programmatic sense if staging and dancers are not provided).

Shostakovich’s mercifully short Symphony No. 2, To October, celebrates a struggle for revolution with a struggle for listeners. Not a symphony in a formal sense, it exercises, at least in its first movement, what the People’s Critics called Formalism, enough for it to disappear from concert halls for 40 years after its 1927 premiere (a decade after the Revolution). The largo first movement opens with basso profundo agitations (or agitprop?) that work up the registers into the upper strings. A muted trumpet solo introduces a purportedly 13-part fugue of worker gossip, before the means of production, martial snares and the like, lead further to an Ivesian apotheosis decorated with tune fragments celebrating Worker Triumph. This strange stuff, much stranger than my description, concluded with a victorious setup of the choral second movement.

“We marched, we asked for work and bread … factory chimneys towered toward the sky … terrible were the names of our shackles …. Oh, Lenin, you forged freedom through struggling … our fate bears the name: Struggle,” according to prole poet Alexander Bezmensky. I excerpt his interminable pain paean in order to avoid depicting the struggle that listeners endured. The compleatnik BSO surely chose to perform this pre-ironic Shostakovich only as a warmup for its Symphony Hall traversal in the fall and subsequent DG recording of the complete symphonies. Spoiler alert: The excellent Tanglewood Festival chorus confirmed in the end that future generations would forever celebrate “October, the Commune and Lenin.” The bourgeois capitalist crowd did not seem convinced, nor was Orwell, writing that “All men are enemies. All animals are comrades.”

Mozart wrote his Piano Concerto No. 12, K.414, “to establish himself financially,” according to annotator Steven Ledbetter. The composer, hoping to sell scores to amateurs, wrote to his father that “These concertos are a happy medium between what is too easy and what is too difficult: they are brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural without being too vapid.” Paul Lewis, Nelsons and the band gave it the kid-glove approach, with vaporous poesy and impeccable refinement. Lewis, especially, dispensed perfect taste and elegance. Perhaps the culture shock of hearing this wilting piece after the Shosty could have been mitigated if Lewis had given some further-reaching cadenzas.

Absent Bulfinch’s explicatons of the mythology, the scenic inspiration of Bakst, and the exertions of a dance corps, an hour of Ravel’s coloristic nyphomanie, Daphnis and Chloe, left this writer worried about satyriasis. Ravel’s massive contribution to the 1911 Ballets Russes season, which amazingly also included the much pithier Petruschka (34 minutes) and Debussy’s gorgeous curtain-raiser Afternoon of a Faun, is generally presented in orchestral suites to prevent concertgoer fatigue.

If ever there were a case to be made for a dance video against live music, this was it. Connecting the synopsis with what we heard could simply not be done with anything approaching specificity. While we got the pirate / wind machine connection, where exactly in the score did Chloe bestow her kiss, nymphs appear carved in rocks, or the three disgraces cavort? The closing Danse général did not stretch our imaginative capabilities but provoked the expected tumult from the crowd … after lukewarm receptions to the two earlier works. And we agree about the performance―simultaneously exquisite and carnal in execution. Everyone delivered, from the machine à ventiste to the restored Malcom Lowe, who provided short but wonderful solo licks.

Bakst’s drop curtain

Throughout, I puzzled about how Ravel and Nelsons achieved the rollicking and off-kilter rhythms. My colleague the composer Tony Schemmer analyzed it:

Stravinsky had a modus operandi of employing excruciating fractionations of meter, with the time signatures often changing bar to bar, from, with little exaggeration for example, 3/4 to 7/16 to 3/8 to 7/π (kidding). Ravel was meticulous and rather fastidious. In Daphnis he achieves amazing syncopations and abrupt jarring accents while maintaining a more accessible notation. He keeps the meters (beats in each bar) relatively uniform for longer passages (at least a few sequential measures) and then writes the accents on offbeats within the measure. In this example, he has a passage with five beats in the measure (5/4). Since this is not an intuitive rhythm, he subdivides into 3+2 for the players’ counting convenience. Then note that the big abrupt accents in the first two measures fall on 1 2 3 4 5 / 1 2 3 4 5 / then switch to 1 2 3 5  / 2 etc. so that the ear now perceives repeated groupings of two. Our score example shows the woodwinds, brass and percussion, which of course deliver the greatest rhythmic wallop, but the strings follow the same pattern. Example HERE.

Composers are rarely lucky in their librettists when they choose themselves. In this case, though, Ravel didn’t need to struggle much. He asked the French Dental Association to equip the open-mouthed singers with an evening’s worth of oohs, ahhs, and hmms. The groundskeepers worked overtime to keep moths from flying into those mouths agape.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

2 Comments »

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

  1. Ban the word “revelatory”

    Comment by Joel A Stein — July 29, 2019 at 12:12 pm

  2. Joel- Turn up the receptivity of your irony detector!

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 29, 2019 at 1:07 pm

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