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Comfort Food from the BSO

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Javier Perianes (James Molinaro photo)

For its first concerts of 2020, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under Brazilian guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger, is giving us the tried and true: the Overture to Beethoven’s music for the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, with Spanish soloist Javier Perianes, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. This is not the kind of bill that would please the New York Times’s David Allen, who in November wrote that the BSO “is taking so few programmatic and interpretive risks that it sounds a bit lost.” But it’s still the holiday season, so perhaps we can be allowed to enjoy familiar fare in a month that will serve up Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra, and Timpani and Rudolf Barshai’s string-orchestra arrangement of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet (along with, okay, Dvořák’s New World Symphony and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra). Besides which, we don’t get to hear Tchaikovsky all that often from the BSO; the orchestra’s music directors have not been especially partial to the Russian composer, and BSO recordings of the symphonies are few and far between. Thursday evening, the two Beethoven pieces were good enough, but it was the Tchaikovsky, with a transcendent solo by principal French horn James Sommerville, that stood out.

We heard the Creatures of Prometheus Overture as recently as 2012, when Christian Zacharias programmed a half-hour of selections from the hour-long 1801 ballet. In the libretto Beethoven was given, the creatures of Prometheus are clay statues that the Titan brings to life. But when he discovers that his creations have no souls and no understanding of the arts, he takes them to Parnassus to be schooled by Apollo. Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy, is annoyed and kills Prometheus, but Thalia, Muse of Comedy, brings him back to life.

You wouldn’t guess that narrative from the five-minute overture, but under Lehninger, who was assistant and then associate conductor at the BSO from 2010 to 2015, the big opening chords had plenty of drama and the pastoral paean that followed was lush and glowing. I was taken aback to see some 60 strings ranged against a lonely-looking central outpost of double winds, French horn, and trumpets plus timpani, but the outpost held its own, and balance — particularly from the timpani — was excellent.

Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto hardly needs an introduction. The nickname — known only to English-speaking countries — is spurious; its origin is unclear, though it’s been credited to the concerto’s English publisher, Johann Baptist Cramer. Beethoven wouldn’t likely have approved; at the time he was writing the piece, Austria was, once again, at war with France, and Napoleon’s army was invading Vienna. Yet the opening movement is nothing if not imperial. It begins with a torrent of cadential flourishes from the piano punctuated by dramatic chords from the orchestra. The first theme is grand in manner if simple in its E-flat harmony; the piano, when it enters, is almost meditative, but it’s soon back in heroic mode, inexhaustible, irrepressible, one could even say Promethean. The slow movement, marked Adagio un poco mosso, is a hymn or perhaps a prayer to the gods of war. It tiptoes into the exuberant concluding Rondo.

I had looked forward to hearing Nelson Freire in the Emperor — I have fond memories of his recordings, particularly his Schumann — but the BSO announced in November that a shoulder injury would prevent the 75-year-old Brazilian from performing. In his place we got Perianes, who played all five Beethoven piano concertos earlier this year with the London Philharmonic, and whose one previous BSO appearance, back in 2016, had him performing Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain.

Perianes started brightly, bringing suspense and humor as well as weight and inflection to the initial cascade and getting warm, aristocratic support from the orchestra. Lehninger’s tempo was expansive — the Allegro first movement ran some 20 minutes — but he kept the pace militant and bracing even as he gave a delicate touch to the two secondary themes. Perianes’s passagework was brilliant in its evenness; you could practically hear stars twinkling in the second subject. But the notes weren’t crisp; there was a suggestion of overpedaling. And though he gave the orchestra ample room, at times it was too much — I was left wondering whether this of all Beethoven’s piano concertos doesn’t call for a more assertive soloist.

In the hushed and very reverent Adagio, Perianes’s touching phrases would go from shy to impulsive and even rhapsodic. He sat very quietly at the piano, seeming to play from his wrists, even from the middle joints of his fingers. But again, in the second variation, where the piano accompanies the orchestra, he was so recessive, you could hardly hear him. The Rondo brought further impressive passagework, but at a steady tempo the movement threatened to stagnate. I wanted more energy, more exuberance.

There wasn’t anything to want from the encore, Chopin’s Opus 17 No. 4 mazurka in A minor. Here Perianes was in his element, slow and elegant at first, then agitated, march-like in the middle section, moody and dancing throughout. 

Tchaikovsky wrote his Fifth Symphony in 1888, 11 years after his Fourth. It premiered in September of that year, in St. Petersburg, with the composer on the podium, and elicited a mixed response; the audience was enthusiastic, but the critics were mostly not. Tchaikovsky himself, after the second performance, wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that it is a failure,” though he eventually relented and came to like it.         

The question mark that hangs over the symphony is its resolution. Like his Fourth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth begins with a motto theme, but this one turns up in all four movements, and in the finale, it takes center stage, finishing as a triumphant march. The symphony moves from E minor in the first movement to D major in the second, A major in the third, and E major in the fourth, adding one sharp each time. But is the progression from E minor to E major really earned? Or is it accomplished through composer fiat?     

Those who consider the Fifth a weak symphony — and there are those who deem it Tchaikovsky’s weakest —  argue that the minor-key march at the beginning of the first movement gets magically transformed into a major-key celebration at the beginning of the fourth, Tchaikovsky having decided, and decreed, that Fate is on his side. Well, yes, but the symphony’s journey from E minor to E major isn’t simple. In that first movement, E minor fights with D major, the second subject maintains a stiff upper lip (at least as the composer marked it), and a relentless ostinato motif threatens to subsume all else. The first subject practically dissolves at the end. D major takes over in the Andante cantabile slow movement, which grows passionate, even tortured, after the intrusion of the motto theme. The third-movement waltz, with a scherzo trio, seems a respite till the motto shows up at the end to prove it too can do 3/4.         

So far, so good. Where you could argue Tchaikovsky miscalculates is at the outset of the Andante maestoso finale, where the motto strides forth in E major — precisely what it will be doing at the symphony’s climax. What’s more, the conductor is left with a metronome mark (crotchet = 80) for the beginning but (unusually for Tchaikovsky) no such indication for the climactic Moderato assai e molto maestoso, so he/she is left to guess whether the composer meant that marking to be slower or faster than Andante maestoso.     

And yet the symphony works if the conductor follows Tchaikovsky’s tempo indications and metronome markings. Which doesn’t always happen. The motto introduction (also crotchet = 80), marked Andante, can get turned into a Largo, and then the first movement’s Allegro con anima primary theme, which at dotted crotchet = 104 should go a bit faster, is apt to take off like a rocket. That can lead to hysteria and swooning and very little else. Tchaikovsky wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel with the Fifth; he begins by looking at Fate as a glass half empty and by the end, after an arduous journey, appears to decide it’s half full. The march that opens the final movement turns out to be a false start; the real one — probably meant to go a little slower — develops only after a tumultuous, cathartic alla breve section. And as if to underline that there’s more to this symphony than the motto, the coda sees the return of the primary theme from the first movement, brimming with confidence and looking to go where no E-major theme has gone before.                        

Marcelo Lehninger (Hilary Scott photo)

That said, some conductors have had success going where Tchaikovsky didn’t. Of the BSO’s three recordings of the Fifth, the second, Pierre Monteux’s from 1958, is a model of understated fidelity, whereas the first, from Serge Koussevitzky in 1944, takes innumerable liberties. (I haven’t heard the third, Seiji Ozawa’s from 1977.) Interpretations as disparate as those of Evgeny Mravinsky, Otto Klemperer, and Igor Markevitch attest to the wealth of this symphony’s possibilities.

You could add Lehninger to that list. His opening statement of the motto was on the slow side for an Andante, but it was alert and compact and never dragged. The Allegro con anima went just a bit faster, as it should, with dark undercurrents; the big outbursts bordered on hysteria, and Lehninger languished, sometimes uncomfortably, over the second and third themes, yet his long phrasing and his cogent overall arc held the movement together. After a huge final climax, the coda found the Allegro con anima theme striding forward, undeterred, even extroverted.

The slow movement’s first theme is introduced by solo French horn. Here Sommerville was superb, not just in his forthright tone but in the nuances of his phrasing, and then assistant principal oboe Keisuke Wakao was poignant in introducing the second theme. Lehninger again built to impassioned climaxes, with the same occasional precious lingering. The motto irruptions were brutal, leaving the second theme to limp home, though it could have sounded more chastened. The Valse went at pretty much the same quickish tempo throughout; Tchaikovsky in fact doesn’t ask for any tempo change, but here the distinction between waltz music and the scherzo trio section didn’t register.

Lehninger went straight into the Andante maestoso finale, as if Tchaikovsky had called for an attacca transition, and his E-major motto march was more impatient than majestic. After yet another protracted climax, the orchestra exploded into the alla breve Allegro vivace at a pace that exceeded even what Mravinsky used to take with the Leningrad Philharmonic. Tchaikovsky marks the Allegro vivace to go at minim = 120, or one measure per second, which is quite a clip, but here the notes blurred. (Besides which, the Presto coda, also in cut time, is marked at minim = 144, meaning a conductor has to leave room to go faster at that point.) Lehninger did maintain the intensity of the Allegro vivace, which takes up most of the movement; even the new throw-away theme that Tchaikovsky introduces in the recapitulation (just because he can) was incendiary. The triumphant return of the motto march was speedy for “molto maestoso,” and though, at the end, the primary theme from the first movement is marked to go slower than it did when we first heard it, that didn’t seem to be the case.

Yet despite all the deviations from the score, Lehninger’s Fifth added up. It eschewed self-pity and, for the most part, sentimentality. It wrestled with Fate; it seethed and stormed without losing its shape. It asked the questions the symphony invites one to ask and didn’t offer easy answers. It might not have been Tchaikovsky by the book, but it was good Tchaikovsky.   

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.

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

  1. I’m generally of the school that when there’s nothing nice to say, it’s best to say nothing. But this is that rare situation where the concert was so far off the mark that something needs to be said. Jeffrey Gantz was being more diplomatic than I believe is appropriate. If you are thinking about going to Saturday night’s concert and don’t have tickets, exercise extreme caution. And if you have tickets, consider trading them in for another concert.

    Marcelo Lehninger, the former BSO assistant conductor who is now Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra, led a disaster of a concert on Thursday night. In place of the phenomenal but injured Nelson Freire, we were presented with Javier Perianes. Don’t bother remembering his name–and hopefully we won’t be hearing it again.

    Beethoven’s Overture to the Creatures of Prometheus ia not A-grade Beethoven and it doesn’t make as big an impression as some of his other overtures such as Egmont. Thursday night it made the littlest one. Yes, we were treated to a HIPster rendition (historically-informed performance, in which expressiveness is downplayed, forces are minimized to increase clarity, etc.). In this depressing performance with the orchestra sounding neutered, it was an overture that was afraid of itself. Even on the final chord which is supposed to make a statement, it whimpered. Hmmm, I thought, not an auspicious opening.

    Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto, for as many times as I’ve heard it live and in recording, is just one of those works that for me is always a joy to hear. And I have no doubt Nelson Freire would have given it a tremendous performance. I’ve also always thought of it as bomb-proof, meaning that it’s not possible for a performance of it to be anything less than enjoyable. In a typically well-done performance, I feel on top of a never-breaking wave that carries me across the water. The second movement is just so profound and dignified, and the ending is a joyful dance. Of course, these comments apply to 99.99% of performances.

    As for Mr. Perianes, he played as if he resented being in front of the orchestra and really wanted nothing more than to be wallpaper in Symphony Hall (not that there is any). He is really very good wallpaper–inconsequential, undemanding, does not like to draw attention to himself, and blends in nicely with the air, which I believe is his ultimate aspiration. He is the anti-everything. Honestly the emergency call should have gone out to New England Conservatory during rehearsals for this cycle of performances, and for certain after the first movement Thursday night. Lehninger was every bit as complicit as Perianes in this disaster. His distorted, incoherent reading struggled mightily but successfully to depress all emotion like all good HIPsters, and stayed within a comfortable range from A to B. It broke new ground in awfulness. I didn’t imagine it was possible for this wonderful work to be so successfully disfigured. Part of it was the beauty of the distended phrase, which Maestro Lehninger is a master of. The reading had zero momentum, zero joy, zero sense of involvement. The orchestra probably gave Lehninger what he wanted but I did notice they weren’t looking at him. It felt like it was Zombie Night at the BSO.

    The worst horror of it was at the end: a massive standing ovation from the audience. Well, not eveyone. We were sitting down, not clapping, and just shocked at the crowd’s response. The lady (70+) sitting next to us, also not clapping, looked at me and just shrugged while this happened, and we both laughed. There was nothing more that needed to be said.

    As for the Tchaikovsky, I am unable to report on how successfully it was disfigured (but I’m sure it was–and Jeffrey Gantz confirms this even if he put a smiley emoji over it). We cut our losses and left. I have always also thought of Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony as one which basically plays itself well and is never going to be anything less than enjoyable to hear. We decided we didn’t need to have that opinion shattered also.

    I have to say, its rare to hear a complete clunker of a concert at the BSO with no redeeming qualities at all. Maybe there’s one every third season. I don’t have a list of performers I blackball, but I have no intention of ever hearing another concert conducted by Marcelo Lehninger again, and ditto Javier Perianes. Neither of them have any business being on Symphony Hall’s stage in my opinion.

    I appreciate that trying to find a replacement on relatively short notice when a performer is injured is challenging. But is this really the best the BSO could do? Seriously, this was a disaster of epic proportions.

    The concert year can only get better.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — January 4, 2020 at 5:49 am

  2. What a nasty, cruel streak of mankind Mogulmister appears to be. It’s as if his very life depended on eschewing the soloist and conductor of the BSO in their programme if Beethoven snd Tchaikovsky. I thought he started off by saying”if you haven’t got anything nice to say, say nothing”…. well, he turned that on it’s head, didn’t he! (Add hypocrite to cruel and nasty!! I have a ticket for tonights performance at Symphony Hall and whilst I might not be as verbose as whatever his name is, I have been to many concerts where the orchestra has been under the baton of Marcelo Lehninger – indeed I have followed his career for about eight years snd he never fails to delight his audiences. So, Mr. Mogulmeister (the name says it all!) I hope your blood pressure descends sometime soon end you can move forward into the New Year with a bit of grace otherwise you might choke on your own verbosity.!!!

    Comment by Patience Lacy-Smith — January 4, 2020 at 3:09 pm

  3. I apologize if my comments offended you. I believe they were entirely fair and objective. Nothing would make me happier than if Marcelo Lehninger one day becomes a conductor of the stature of Bernard Haitink, because there are never enough great conductors. But nothing I heard Thursday night suggested that’s a possibility, and unfortunately you had not heard a note of the concert when you posted your message. Hopefully you had a better experience than we did Thursday night.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — January 5, 2020 at 11:43 am

  4. Apology graciously accepted! I enjoyed last nights concert very much and in fairness to Marcelo Lehninger know that he was greatly disappointed when his friend, Nelson Freire, was unable to play the Beethoven. Had he been able to, I suggest you may have enjoyed the first part of the program rather more. The Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony is one of my favourites anyway so I lost myself in the magnificent wind and brass players. Thank you again for your apology and enjoy every note of music you can sit and listen to throughout 2020!!

    Comment by Patience Lacy-Smith — January 5, 2020 at 5:18 pm

  5. And the broadcast of Saturday’s concert may prove interesting to readers who wish to compare notes.

    Comment by Camilli — January 5, 2020 at 6:03 pm

  6. My friend and I attended the Thursday night concert and agree 150% with Mogulmeister’s articulate analysis. Enough said. Very disappointing in every aspect.

    Comment by Sarah Leaf-Herrmann — January 5, 2020 at 6:15 pm

  7. The Friday afternoon concert was considerably more successful than Thursday night’s, from the sound of it, and had many moments of absolute splendor. Not that it was all equally compelling or persuasive: unlike the reviewer’s Thursday account, the Creatures overture felt like a warmup on Friday, stumbling out of the gate without total agreement on when to play the first four massive chords, and never quite seeming to jell despite Lehninger’s bracing tempi and unambiguous baton. The 5th concerto was much better, though – I can’t remember hearing a more lyrical, rhythmically supple approach than that of the Spanish pianist Javier Perianes. If his take and touch didn’t quite attain to the summits of grandeur envisioned by the composer, they certainly did manage to locate the sublime, particularly in the Adagio. True, at times Perianes, Lehninger, and the players seemed to be breathing slightly differently, but Friday’s was on the whole an unusually beautiful performance, and certainly well worth attending, pace Mogulmeister and Sarah. I will be curious, too, Camilli, about the Saturday performance, and eagerly await the re-broadcast.

    Now, were any doubts to remain that Javier Perianes is a superb pianist and musician, his Friday encore, Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance from the ballet El amor brujo, would have erased them. His performance of this piece, which I believe Arthur Rubinstein transcribed and made a signature encore after Falla took him to the ballet, was pure magic – actually rather more magical than the extant recordings of AR himself. Perianes conjured an enthralling account – spun from the most impeccable touch and lucid pedaling – that utterly silenced the rheumy crowd until the final catharsis. Increíble!

    Finally, the Tchaikovsky 5th was mostly quite fine on Friday – not quite at the levels of emotional depth and unity of ensemble that the band achieved under Andris Nelsons back on that Friday afternoon in 2013, but often magnificent and thrilling. Alas, the Valse was the least of it for me, as for the reviewer, I gather: less nuanced and emotionally affecting than it might have been. The finale was superbly assured, though, despite the blistering tempi, and made as powerful an impact as it should.

    A last word: though I hate to disagree with as informed a listener as Mogulmeister, I cannot accept his claim that Tch5 “plays itself”. Myself, I’ve heard enough unconvincing performances to feel otherwise. As elsewhere in his oeuvre, the composer provides plenty of challenges in the 5th – technical and interpretive – that only the finest ensembles can surmount without audible effort.

    Comment by nimitta — January 6, 2020 at 2:25 pm

  8. We do not regularly cite other professional takes, but this amount of discussion and difference might find one of interest:

    https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/01/03/arts/bso-starts-new-year-with-familiar-fare-old-friends/

    Comment by David R. Moran — January 6, 2020 at 7:59 pm

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