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Choral Favorite Capped BSO Concert

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Johannes Moser (Hilary Scott photo)

This weekend’s Boston Symphony program stretches unusually along several axes. For one thing, guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, who is often brought in for his interest in modern-to-contemporary music, has obliged with a menu reaching back no earlier than mid-20th century, plus one Symphony Hall premiere of a commissioned work by Helen Grime previously heard only at Tanglewood. For another, the BSO’s set is unusual for featuring both an instrumental soloist, cellist Johannes Moser, and a major choral undertaking, the Requiem of Maurice Duruflé.

The evening opened on Thursday with Limina by Anglo-Scottish composer Helen Grime, which the BSO commissioned along with the Tanglewood Music Center, and which had its premiere out west this past July. There are some interesting parallels between Grime and another British composer of the generation before her, Judith Weir: both consider themselves Scottish but were born in England and largely reside there now; both have attained honors (Grime is now an MBE, Weir is a CBE); both were Tanglewood fellows; and both, as performers, are oboists. That, however, is pretty much where the resemblance ends.

Limina, whose name comes from the Latin for thresholds or boundaries between states of being or perception, is sort of a tone poem that seeks to convey scenes, or their affect, from Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas’s 1963 novel The Ice Palace, in which a young girl proceeds through the chambers of a frozen waterfall. Grime’s score sets a mise-en-scène with whirling high winds and strings in polyrhythmic patterns creating curtains of background sound as a brittle and harsh motif of a minor third emerges, notably in the brass. Subsequent sections include one that is rhythmically more pronounced, but still pretty nasty. The orchestration of the large ensemble is virtuosic; it also features an ensemble comprising three solo violins—the girl?—that sometimes emerge from the background, and sometimes struggle with it (the energetic yet ethereal performers were the three lead BSO firsts, Tamara Smirnova, Alexander Velinzon and Elita Kang). Guerrero superbly coordinated and shaped the sectional balances. A big climax ushers in a quieter passage in which the soloists emerge, just before the rather abrupt close. The composer acknowledged the plaudits.

For our money, this seemed less like a procession than a succession of sonic blocks, whether loud or soft, that didn’t really convey the idea of transitioning from one state to another. And a minor third is not a lot to go on as a unifying force without, as with Beethoven’s protean major third, a strong rhythmic and formal structure in and through which it can be seen to develop. Sad to say, with all its bravura, it left us…(not taking the bait) unmoved.

Sir William Walton, whose life spanned most of the 20th century (1902-1983), seems today a plushly upholstered wing chair in a world of spare, hard plastic. After a brief faux feint in the direction of brittle modernism in his early 20s (his enduringly popular Façade for narrator and orchestra), he settled in to create some enduring masterworks in the grand tradition, beginning with his most popular one, the 1929 viola concerto that is now the standard-bearer of the genre, written for Lionel Tertis but premiered, in the event, by Paul Hindemith. He created two further concertos for string instruments, the 1939 violin concerto for Jascha Heifetz, and the 1956 cello concerto for Gregor Piatigorsky, which the BSO premiered under Charles Munch in January 1957. Curiously, though it has been performed in four more concert sets by the BSO since then (really just 3 1/3, since the last time was just one movement), it has not since its premiere been conducted by a BSO music director.

Like the other two string concertos, the Concerto in C major for Cello and Orchestra inverts the standard concerto format by having two moderately paced movements sandwich a scherzoid filling. Walton was particularly happy with the result (you can see and hear one of Piatigorsky’s performances of it here, with the BBC SO under Malcolm Sargent). The signal musical idea that permeates the first movement and returns in the third is a tick-tock accompaniment figure, that stays largely in the background but that provides an unsettling underpinning to the mainly lyrical expression of the cello and orchestra. Moser emitted a robust and mellifluous sound, with a fair degree of portamento, though in general keeping with Guerrero’s fairly subdued and decorously unflashy reading (notwithstanding the rather large orchestral forces for a concerto). The central movement scurried nervously with occasionally biting harmonies. Its brief feints to lyrical passages suggest less a scherzo than a sonata form. Guerrero and Moser took their opportunity here to amp up the decibels and the blood rate. The overall aspect of the movement felt akin to Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock film scores, which is no bad thing (Walton himself contributed significantly to the British film industry).

Giancarlo Guerrero (Hilary Scott photo)

The finale, styled Theme and Improvisations, is basically a set of four broad-sense variations on a somewhat meandering, loose-limbed theme, alternating them in primarily orchestral and solo entries, the latter serving as substitutes for cadenzas (which Walton disliked). The whole is rounded out with an epilogue that restates the theme and brings in both the first movement’s main melody and the chilling tick-tock, to a quiet ending on an open C string. While Walton entertained second thoughts about having a more bravura ending, even rewriting it and sending it to Piatigorsky, the verdict of history has been that he got it best the first time. No arguments here.  While not digging deep like the cello concerto of his contemporary Brit Gerald Finzi (a work that deserves to be not just not a rarity but as much a staple as Elgar’s), the Walton is a solid entry in the surprisingly satisfying British cello concerto repertoire.

Moser obliged the audience’s persistent cheers with the Sarabande of Bach’s first suite, in a rendition that took dynamic precision to near silence—something he’s really good at, as anyone who has heard him in recital can attest.

The capstone of the evening, much to our surprise, came in a riveting performance of the Duruflé Requiem, op. 9 (1947), a very popular item among amateur choruses, though perhaps less so often with professional orchestras (this is only the second time the BSO has performed it, other than single movements at Pops). Duruflé, an exact contemporary of Walton (1902-1986) and composed so fastidiously that his published œuvre extends only to op. 14. (Pamela Feo’s note discreetly elides the datum that the 1941 commission came from the collaborationist Vichy regime), but its sound world is worlds away, most of the time, from its time and external circumstances. Picking up more or less where Fauré left off, it ingeniously employs Gregorian chant melodies with mostly fin-de-siècle harmonies and subtle rhythmic accommodation that respect a fluid, oh-so-French pulselessness going back to Berlioz and before. Again featuring a large, but subtly deployed orchestra and supremely effective vocal forces (while the original score called for soloists, chorus, orchestra and organ, Duruflé sanctioned, and even sometimes used, a variant the BSO employed that omits the soloists and substitutes a children’s choir, here the stellar BSO Children’s Choir), it mostly shuns the bone-rattling fire and brimstone of, say, Verdi, for the comforting messages of Fauré and, odd company, Brahms. It skips most of the Dies irae, for example, and sets only the Pie Jesu couplet from that section, though it does rise up for the equivalent section in the Libera me later on.

How closely Duruflé’s sound world evokes that of, of all people, Ralph Vaughan Williams, though it should be borne in mind that RVW studied with Ravel, and also liked to set archaic or archaic-sounding melodies to updated harmonic idioms.

Not having heard it live before, we were struck by the appealing performance; the immediacy and reverberation of the hall opened up the flattened sonics of recordings. Guerrero also adopted some brisk tempi, notably from the get-go in the Introit, and kept one’s attention on the interweaving lines in both chorus and orchestra. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, under James Burton, were in splendid voice and crack synchrony. One might be forgiven a certain weariness at the obsessively moderate tempi and dynamics of a lot of the music; but when the big climaxes came, they were fully realized. Duruflé’s thoughtful orchestration provided some fine solo passages: the Pie Jesu, from the newly appointed second chair cello, Oliver Aldort, another for bass clarinet by Ryan Yure, and a marvelous piling up of quartal harmonies in the concluding In Paradisum for harpist Jessica Zhou. Throughout the piece, organist Heinrich Christensen carefully modulated his part to keep it well integrated, but swelled beautifully when the occasion called.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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  1. Thank you, Mr. Koven, for your review. This was a wonderful concert. In the Duruflé Requiem, TFC director James Burton was inspired to entrust the solo sections to his excellent choral singers. And the Boston Symphony Children’s Choir sounded angelic throughout, particularly in the concluding In Paradisum.

    Comment by Alessandra Kingsford — February 29, 2020 at 8:40 am

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