According to the very useful BSO performance database Henry, last night’s performance notched the 232nd time the BSO has played the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Almost no violinist of fame has not played it here. The latest was Augustin Hadelich, an Italian-born son of German parents who calls America home. He holds an Artist Diploma from The Juilliard School, and since earning the Gold Medal from the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, has experienced concert-stage ubiquity. His tone on the 1723 “Ex-Kiesewetter” Stradivari suffused our hallowed Hall with amazing grace.
Even if you haven’t heard the concerto 232 times, you can hardly ever forget those five timpani strokes that open the concerto. Had any music ever before begun thus? Michael Steinberg goes on in his essay to tell us that the Beethoven Violin Concerto did not initially catch on. “The first violinist to make a success of it was the 12-year-old Joseph Joachim, who played it in London in 1844 with Mendelssohn conducting. Joachim came pretty much to own the work, and it was mainly through his persuasive advocacy that it took its place as an indispensable repertory item.”
Last night’s kettledrum intro set up a vital heartbeat that underpinned the humanity of the enterprise to follow. Under Andris Nelsons’s architecting, the eloquent instrumental choirs built expectation masterfully in the shapely call and answer phrases. Hadelich entered restless but composed, with exquisitely sweet, well-centered tone that penetrated even in his many pianissimos. The pace overall felt relaxed, though never slack, as we witnessed timeless refinement of tone and expression from soloist and orchestra. From the faintest stirrings to the most passionate throbbing, the soloist’s heart beat with generous warmth in every gesture.
In Fritz Kreisler’s cadenza, which that greatest of interpreters had played several times in the Hall, Hadelich absolutely integrated ornament with harmonic and melodic design. Unforced, it came across with surpassing delicacy and avoidance of narcissism. Nelsons brought the orchestra back in with corresponding subtlety. The Larghetto transported us to a place of profound depth and wistful sadness. Hadelich reached for Parnassus with a supernally poignant breath. The variation over preternaturally quiet muted-string pizzes allowed the Hadelich to express unmannered yearning without ever needing to be pushy. After the extended trill and bridge to the Rondo: Allegro, the mood changes to a joyful country dance. We suffered from no warhorseitis at any time. In fact, inflections sounded invariably fresh and the collaborative spirit brought the musical brothers and sisters together in a thoroughgoing Beethovenian ode to joy.
Hadelich acceded to the demands of the ecstatic crowd with Francisco Tarrega’s familiar “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” as transcribed from guitar by the American master violinist Ruggiero Ricci (He was born in California as Woodrow Wilson Rich, but Ricci was in fact the family’s original name.). Hadelich brought rapture to the attentive house.
Everything you have heard about Richard Strauss’s marriage with Pauline suggests he would music their family life as a maelstrom rather than a domesticated symphony. In fact the supreme tone painter, who claimed listeners could hear the difference between a tablespoon and a teaspoon in a dinner scene as he described them in sound, is probably the only composer of music for diaper changes. He joined a significant company, though, who had musically evoked a certain kind of climax.
How does the Strauss couple’s coupling compare with the depictions in Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, Daphis et Chloe, the Liebestod, Bolero or the Bacchanal from Samson and Delila? It’s hard to persuade listeners to wear meters to allow that determination. Many critics tut-tut quite amusingly over the supposed tastelessness of these Loony Tunes. One 1935 critic referred to the salacious trombone in Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District as “pornophony.” The conductor Hans Richter, in an oft quoted remark, took pleasure in describing Symphonia Domestica’s nursery scene thus: “All the cataclysms of the downfall of the gods in burning Valhalla do not make a quarter of the noise of one Bavarian baby in his bath.” Few other than this writer now side with Richard’s beloved and feared papa, who wrote, “You really shouldn’t make that much noise in your own home.”
When the BSO played it last, 10 years ago, Rafael Frühbeck averred in an interview with Brian Bell that Strauss meant his egomania ironically. Taken on those terms, the piece can be regarded as unbridled fun. One certainly cannot argue with the sheer compositional chops shown in the final double fugue. And the very loud and well-earned coda invariably elicits a standing O as it did last night.
Papa Strauss may be right about Symphonia Domestica. As a tone poem it can be crass and loud, though as in all of junior’s output, melodies come along to disarm us. As a symphony it meanders. Bumptious but lovable it might be to fans, who seemingly experienced that loving climax to which the composer alluded in his descriptive program. Rather than thinking of the Strauss family, I chose to greet it as a depiction of the BSO family: cooperative and gleaming but individually obstreperous massed strings, rambunctious horns and trombones, blathering brass, argumentative winds, and a seductive oboe d’amore (Mark McEwen) all contending for attention in a crowded beer garden. Nelsons and his colleagues treated the creaky relic like an embarrassing but lovable old bounder. Baron Ochs looked down with pleasure at the jolly depictions of human foibles, though he paced impatiently in waltz time during some of the noodling.
Papa Nelsons willed perfect order through the familial discord, maintaining the superior glow only possible from the efforts of expensive retainers. The BSO showed spectacularly good form in a realization that is ready for canning in a CD or taking to Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer