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.
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.