On the memorably warm autumn day of October 8th, the Boston Symphony Orchestra fittingly offered a program easily characterized as “life-affirming.” Music Director Andris Nelsons selected two works of Richard Strauss’s early maturity for the first half: the masterful Tongedicht (tone poem) Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) from 1889, and the love scene from Strauss’s second opera (or Singgedicht “sung poem”) Feuersnot (Need of Fire or Fire Famine) from 1901. Though they share the theme of redemption, the former shows the artist at his most spiritual while the latter concerns itself strictly with physical love. The concert finished with the jubilant Concerto in E-flat Major for Two Pianos, K. 365, by Mozart, a composer much admired by Strauss whose own career survived half a century longer. Nelsons spontaneously addressed the audience, noting that they should bring friends who might not otherwise attend either of the two remaining concerts in the run. I can only concur.
Strauss composed Feuersnot largely as vengeance on his hometown of Munich for its rejection of his first opera Guntram, and he had little compunction about épater le bourgeoisie though the Flemish legend it is based on is so bawdy that his librettist, Ernst von Wolzogen, did ultimately feel compelled to tone it down somewhat. A craftsman named Kunrad (representing Strauss himself) publicly humiliates the maiden Diemut, daughter of the mayor of Munich, by stealing a kiss from her. Her revenge is to make him believe she loves him and persuade him to get into a basket to be pulled up to her room in secret. When he is halfway up, she literally leaves him hanging, exposed to the ridicule of the populace of Munich. The incensed Kunrad, who is an apprentice of the powerful sorcerer Reichhart (representing Richard Wagner, another composer badly treated by Munich), uses magic to extinguish all fires in the city, curses the “philistines,” and informs them that only when Diemut returns his love will he return fire to them. The maiden realizes that the city’s well-being depends on her changing her attitude and leads Kunrad indoors. Though Wolzogen felt the need to sanitize the original fable, Strauss in the purely orchestral love scene does not feel so constrained. His music is seductive from the start and quite soon begins rising in dynamics and keys. Nelsons and the orchestra didn’t slight the few moments of repose, but they skillfully created the effect of a well-paced grand crescendo with an accelerando adding to the excitement. Strauss here employed multiple musical gestures (e.g., the whooping figures in the horns, trumpets, and trombones) signifying sexual arousal and release, that he would have recourse to in a number of later works. Using economical gestures, Nelsons built a climax of great excitement and power—as well as a majestically triumphant coda as erotic love wins out and fire and light are restored to Munich. Though Strauss may have owed some of his musical techniques to Wagner’s Liebestod, this “redemption” was altogether earthly (earthy?), with death and afterlife removed entirely from the equation.
It was a logical progression (though a regression in time of 12 years) to the other work of the same composer, Tod und Verklärung. The 25-year-old Strauss demonstrates a near-prodigious mastery of his craft in this work of sophisticated construction and emotionally moving imagery. Though in the larger view, the piece is a diptych depicting scenes before and after death (corresponding to Olivier Messiaen’s colossal organ work Combat de la mort et de la vie of half a century later), Strauss fairly clearly delineates four sections: the weakness of a dying old man; his anguish as he mounts a fierce final resistance to death; returning calm as cherished memories pass through his mind and he dies; and attainment of yearned-for redemption and transfiguration. Here too the BSO and Nelsons excelled in creating vivid atmospheres. The muted strings at the opening depicted irregular breathing with feathery pulsations, soon offset with celestial harp arpeggios under gleaming solos by flute, oboe, and clarinet as the old man perhaps imagines life beyond death. The first section consisted of this continued alternation between hushed suffering and glimpses of beauty. A resounding blow on the timpani ushered in the powerful struggle between life and death which is, not coincidentally, a test of the players’ virtuosity as well. Their control (and Nelsons’s) admirably depicted the protagonist’s anguished but heroic resistance. The climax felt no less intense than that of Feuersnot’s love scene but carried significantly more emotional weight due to the dire circumstances depicted. Repose returned, and perhaps acceptance, as the man’s fondest memories passed through his mind with the proviso that he was not destined to fulfill his highest aspirations during his earthly life. As in the first section, Strauss distributes solos to numerous instruments, all of which the players rendered handsomely and evocatively. After death seemingly achieved victory, a slow ascension began from the bass registers, progressing gently and mesmerizingly until it culminated in the beautiful transfiguration theme, heard earlier but only achieving its full significance here. The dénouement suffused us in the bliss of a soul presumably fulfilling its earthly aspirations in a blessed afterlife. Following the full orchestra’s bow, Nelsons rightly took considerable time to give individual bows to all the solo players. I was happy to note that these performances are being recorded for future release, and I look forward to hearing the orchestra’s bookending Strauss programs in the spring.
Mozart’s two-piano concerto, in which the twin sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton debuted in place of the stranded Dutch brothers Jussen, completed the concert. A friendly collaboration of siblings was, of course, what Mozart had in mind when he composed the concerto for himself and his older sister Nannerl.
With a breezy air and smiling insouciance the sisters entered, and rather endearingly bowed in disunion. Artistically, however, they approach the concerto with such unanimity and dovetailed phrasing so seamlessly that a listener, closing his eyes, might well conjure a single player—with perhaps a few extra fingers! They participated in a musical conversation between equals, with context and occasional interjections provided by the orchestra, attentively guided by Nelsons. The mounting jubilation of the pianos’ first-movement cadenza offered a delectable high point. The second movement’s more restful tempo allowed more dynamic variety within phrases and a greater range of articulation in the two pianos. Consistent lucidity and beauty characterized the sisters’ tone. In the final movement, Nelsons and the BSO provided a jaunty introduction with a sly agogic accent on the “surprise” chord shortly before the pianos’ entrance. The Naughtons plainly enjoyed themselves, playing with wit and high spirits. In the minor-mode passage of the development, the triplet accompaniment was one of the very few times the texture turned “frothy” rather than transparent. This musical banter “on a lighter topic” nevertheless maintained the charm and grace of the previous movements. The scintillating fingerwork of the last-movement cadenza became something more in their hands—a showcase of Mozart’s inventiveness—before the work concluded exuberantly.
The Naughtons received an extended ovation that led to an encore, a four-hands (one piano) transcription of Bernstein’s Overture to Candide, a display piece that the sisters played to the hilt. The frequent register shifts somewhat wearied, but given the nature of the four-hand transcription, were probably inevitable. Bernstein’s musical witticisms contained more bite than Mozart’s, but gave no less pleasure. The duo infused the sustained central tune with warmth and elegance, and they impressively tossed off the canon and stretto before their concluding “sucker punch” cadence left the audience chuckling. The Naughton sisters have already built a very impressive resume; kudos to Anthony Fogg and the BSO for obtaining their services on what must have been short notice.