The three pieces Russian guest conductor Dima Slobodeniouk has chosen for this weekend’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts all come from the early part of the 20th century: Jean Sibelius’s symphonic poem Pohjola’s Daughter (1906), Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto (1919), and Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5 (1922). There’s also a Scandinavian slant to the bill: Sibelius is Finnish, Nielsen is Danish, the cello soloist, Truls Mørk, is Norwegian, and Slobodeniouk, though born in Moscow, now lives in Finland. Opening night Thursday, Symphony Hall was far from full, which is a shame because the program was excellent and so were the performances.
Pohjola’s Daughter (Pohjolan tytär in the original Finnish) is one of Sibelius’s many Kalevala-inspired compositions. Composed in 1906, it appears to draw on Poem 8 of the Finnish epic, where the old hero Väinämöinen is riding along in his sledge when he spies the beautiful maid of the North (Pohjola is actually a place name) sitting up in a rainbow weaving cloth of gold and silver. Pointing out what a fine fellow he is, he invites her into his sledge; she replies that if he’s really so fine, he’ll be able to split a horsehair with a pointless knife and tie an egg into a knot so the knot doesn’t show. Such tasks are child’s play for Väinämöinen, but the maiden devises harder ones. As Väinämöinen is trying to carve a boat from the fragments of her distaff, an evil spirit causes the axe to bounce into his knee and toe, and that ends his suit.
Sibelius’s original title for the piece was Väinämöinen. His German publisher didn’t care for that and suggested Tochter des Nordens (“Daughter of the North”). Sibelius countered with L’aventure d’un héros (“The Adventure of a Hero”) and also considered Luonnatar, a name that takes us back to the creation story at the beginning of the Kalevala. Pohjola’s Daughter is the title the piece wound up with, but its history makes you wonder how much of a narrative you should expect.
Actually, Sibelius had the final title firmly in mind when he got down to serious composition, so there’s the makings of a story. The opening slow cello recitative seems both a storyteller’s invitation and a warning that this tale won’t end happily ever after. The main theme starts in the woodwinds, after which string ostinatos might suggest the maiden’s spinning wheel. You can certainly hear Väinämöinen in the heroic brass theme that ends the exposition. After that, you could detect the maiden’s laughter in the gurgling woodwinds, though in the Kalevala, she never laughs at Väinämöinen’s success, she only sets new challenges. And the recapitulation seems to speak less of Väinämöinen’s physical pain (which in the story is considerable) than of his romantic disappointment.
Narrative aside, the piece is one of Sibelius’s most popular short works, so it was a surprise to learn that Slobodeniouk is only the fourth conductor to program it with the BSO and the first since Colin Davis in 1980. He might well be the best. His atmospheric interpretation began with a growl and then a deep cello (Blaise Déjardin) answered by an equally deep bass clarinet (David Martins). What followed over the next 13 minutes was controlled chaos, everything clarified but not simplified, with exceptionally thoughtful paragraphing. Sibelius’s characteristic play of winds was colorful and robust; Väinämöinen’s theme had a bit of the boaster in it; the maiden was palpable in the tinkling harp. The development gave a sense of Väinämöinen’s tasks and the maiden’s laughter and then Väinämöinen trying harder before the axe falls. He’s the Kalevala’s most enduring, if not always endearing, character, present right to the end of Poem 50, so the barking of brass that announced the big theme at the beginning of the recapitulation was appropriate, and so was the Straussian lushness Slobodeniouk brought to his outsized regret. Once reality set in, we could perceive the Great Bear constellation (a Kalevala constant) twinkling quietly overhead, and then the cello, even calmer, took us out, as if to say “I told you so.”
Completed in 1919, the Elgar Cello Concerto was the last of the composer’s major works, coming some 20 years after the Enigma Variations, The Dream of Gerontius, and the first Pomp and Circumstance march, and a dozen after the First Symphony. In the wake of the First World War, Elgar’s music had gone out of fashion, and the under-rehearsed premiere of the Cello Concerto, in October 1919, did nothing to restore his reputation. The work didn’t become really popular until Jacqueline du Pré recorded it with Sir John Barbirolli (who had played in the cello section at the premiere) in 1965. Now it’s as familiar as any cello concerto in the repertoire.
The piece is certainly unmistakable as Elgar, and yet its bittersweet lyricism bears the scars of war. Like Pohjola’s Daughter, it opens with a craggy cello recitative in E minor, a kind of question to the orchestra. The woodwinds answer, the cello essays a scale, and the time signature shifts from 4/4 into the lilting 9/8 Moderato of the famous big first subject. This gets tossed back and forth between cello and orchestra, but it doesn’t go anywhere, and then the more animated E-major middle section, in 12/8, keeps lapsing into reverie. The return of the initial theme is truncated before the cello lets it fade away.
The Allegro molto scherzo takes a full third of its four and a half minutes to start buzzing (did Elgar, like Sherlock Holmes, keep bees at his Sussex cottage?), and here too there are lyrical interludes, almost flashbacks. The Adagio is a meditation on a single theme, and then the closing Allegro, like the scherzo, has trouble starting up. Chirpy sections alternate with more reverie; a noble new theme seems poised to herald a better future, but then the concerto retreats to the Adagio theme and the opening cello recitative. The final flourish is hardly convincing.
In a brief promotional video he made while recording the concerto with Simon Rattle in 1999, Mørk speaks of the difficulty of “following” du Pré in this piece and of how he and Rattle restarted from the score to see was there a different way. What he found seems to me beautifully balanced, less passionately aggressive than du Pré but not in the least sentimental or ostentatious, intense but also playful, and with long arcs of phrasing that hold the piece together. He made the opening recitative rich and resonant, and then the violas gave a ghostly aura to the Moderato main theme. The tempo for this first movement seemed a hair faster than I’ve heard from other Mørk performances, and Slobodeniouk’s approach throughout was crisp to the point of stiff upper lip, but you could still detect the everyday activity of the middle section, an attempt at cheer that falls back into sorrow.
Mørk understated the scherzo in a bluff, hearty, good-humored reading where the bees were relaxed as they went about their business. His tender, sumptuous Adagio sang at a proper Adagio clip (as opposed to the drawn-out Lento or Largo one sometimes hears); nothing was rushed, and yet it was over all too soon. He began the main theme of the Allegro finale with a powerful impulse, as if it pointed the way to a brighter future. When that theme was taken up by the orchestra, however, the bees were back and frolicking, auguring a lighthearted conclusion. Nothing daunted, Mørk wrenched the new theme from its instrument, and the orchestra responded: this surely was the way forward. And then, almost without transition, we were hearing the Adagio theme again. As in Pohjola’s Daughter, the opening cello recitative returned as a sober reminder. That final flourish fell somewhere between forced and defiant.
I can remember when encores were a rare occurrence at BSO concerts, but we got the second one in as many weeks. Last Thursday it was Yuja Wang playing “Tea for Two.” For his encore, Mørk chose Pau Casals’s arrangement of the Catalan Christmas carol “El cant dels ocells” (“The Song of the Birds”), in which the likes of woodlark and wren, linnet and nightingale sing to greet the birth of Jesus. It’s a lullaby as well as a carol; Mørk’s rendition was dreamily hypnotic.
The Nielsen Fifth has always been best known for the snare drum cadenza at the end of the first movement, where the percussionist is instructed to halt the progress of the orchestra at all cost. The attempt fails, but that doesn’t mean it’s clear sailing for the second and final movement. Like the Elgar concerto, the Fifth is scarred by the war, and Nielsen’s is an even tougher response.
The symphony opens with the violas oscillating between A and C before the bassoons enter with an initial motif. Nothing definitive follows, only directionless strings, woodwinds crying in the wilderness, ominous rumblings in the snare drum. Finally, after 10 minutes, the Tempo giusto becomes an Adagio non troppo and the strings manage to sustain a theme. There are even glints of sunshine before the woodwinds begin to complain. The snare drum returns to loose the dogs of war, and when the orchestra wins out and the snare drum falls into step, you expect a victorious climax. Instead, solo clarinet wails out an ambivalent assortment of themes from the movement.
That leads to an equally ambivalent second movement. The “official” key signature is A major, but the orchestra thinks it’s in B, so no surprise that the exposition that follows is hard to parse. After some seven minutes, a fast, jig-like fugue develops, with overtones of martial joy, not necessarily what you were hoping to hear. Then the flutes take it down and a slow fugue with an intense melody develops. That’s encouraging, but the coda, with its banging timpani, will make you wonder whether the jubilation is anything more than the battle cry of innumerable republics.
Slobodeniouk’s interpretation was in line with his Sibelius. After the bassoon invocation, and the strings’ attempt at a theme, we got the same kind of extended roar where everybody seems to be playing at once but there’s no clotting, no confusion. The snare drum (Kyle Brightwell) suggested a militant direction; the flutes and clarinets responded hysterically. The Adagio non troppo theme emerged from nowhere, warm but wary; it was greeted by glorious, perhaps martial brass and then the snare drum grew ever more insistent. I have fond memories of a Jascha Horenstein LP from 1969 in which the snare drummer’s arsenal included a barrage of rim shots. Brightwell didn’t go that far, but he was ferocious, and for his concession he went through the door stage right and played off stage, as if in protest. He wasn’t seen again till he returned at the end to take his bow. Meanwhile William Hudgins gave the clarinet conclusion a sensuous, almost Middle Eastern feel.
The second movement brought more excellent paragraphing: first the roiling, inchoate turmoil, then the galumphing fast fugue, lucidly outlined and not a little terrifying. The slow fugue came as a relief, a restart, hinting at the last movement of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony (which at this time neither Mahler nor Nielsen nor anyone else had heard). As in the Elgar, a noble future beckoned, but gradually the theme got hijacked by pounding timpani and a general honking, and you weren’t sure whether the culmination was apocalyptic or militaristic. Slobodeniouk managed to have it both ways.
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.