IN: Reviews

BSO Does Justice to Two Russians


Bernard Haitink (Dominick Reuter photo)

Last night’s Boston Symphony concert began with a quiet jolt: Andris Nelsons announced the death in London of Bernard Haitink, the honored and beloved BSO Conductor Emeritus, at age 92. In his memory, the BSO strings played the Air (on a g string) from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3; a hesitant applause followed, and one supposed that a moment of reverent silence would have been better than handclaps; but that one Bach slow movement of 18 bars, is as beautiful as music ever gets.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s The Light of the End, meaning, one guesses, light at the end of the tunnel of dismal Soviet rule in her native Russia, was a BSO commission, premiered in 2003, and deserved last night’s rehearing. The score calls for a large and much-divided orchestra: 4 (picc, alto fl)-1(+ Eng. horn + heckelphone) -2 (+ bass cl)-2(+ cbn), 4-3-2 (+ cb. trb)-tuba, timpani, 5 percussion, and augmented strings: 20-18-14-14-12 (I didn’t count all the string players but there might not have actually been that many).

The music is kaleidoscopic — a succession of gestures in sound rather than a developing progression, like broad splashes of shaped color here and there on a huge canvas, with striking instrumental individualities. It begins with alternating mid-register pitches on the harp, penetrating in tone, which are suddenly swept away by crashing oceanic waves of chromatic scales, strings and winds. Then follow unison notes on horns and trombones in what seemed an impossibly high register — one remembers the noble high E-flat solo trombone in Berg’s Three Pieces, op. 6. Other episodes, one after the other, stood out — a dialogue of wave scales alternating with thick-textured polychords in divided cellos and basses; fortissimo brass in ultra-high chords penetrated by crystal-clear triads; long-breathed unison melodic lines, unsupported by counterpoint, but with changing instrumental colors, ranging from high to low, including an expressive dialogue of horn and solo cello; various soli spelling out the overtone series up to the sixteenth harmonic, with bent pitches; and some unforgettable low-register sounds, especially with the contrabass trombone which I couldn’t see but I surely heard. (Remember the similar passage in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, Part III, just before “Summer Winds.” Not even the tuba, and surely not the contrabassoon, offers as much round tone in this deep register; Gubaidulina’s sound is the more effective.) The ending of The Light of the End vanishes into the stratosphere, with crotales, wind chimes, and divided violins, with seesaw arpeggios across the strings (unlike the identical technique in the Strauss piece two weeks ago, these really sounded, in perceptible triads), artificial harmonics in the 8th position, and Firebird glissandi in harmonics (the cellos shared these as well). So divisi were the first violins that the inside players had to turn pages every few seconds. I especially wanted to see the heckelphone, an instrument I knew only from photographs (it is considered a tenor oboe). Mark McEwen, second oboist, showed me what was actually used, a bass oboe (which unlike the heckelphone, but like the English horn, uses a Boehm-type fingering system); it was also chosen for better low-register sound, which is warm and penetrating. (It had a striking solo in the Gubaidulina piece; you have also heard it in The Planets.) It looks like an English horn but half again as long, almost resting on the floor.

The Gubaidulina performance recognized her 90th birthday, and I honor the Light’s explorations of unusual orchestral sound and minimalist texture, even when I never could find a sense of formal cohesion. But I would be happy to hear it again, or twice more.                    

To this writer, last night’s traversal of the Rachmaninoff’s Symphony no. 3, op. 44 (1936) revealed a major masterpiece. Some consider him a 19th-century Romantic, the composer of “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” and his best-known music remains an anachronistic relic, even to those who can discern the really original aspects of his Second Concerto through a thick veil of overplayed sentimentalism. Stravinsky wrote of Rachmaninoff’s early works: “They were ‘watercolors,’ songs and piano pieces freshly influenced by Tchaikovsky. Then at 25 he turned to ‘oils’ and became a very old composer indeed.” This evaluation bespoke the overripe Russo-Germanic harmony and exaggeratedly thick texture of works like Isle of the Dead and Second Symphony (in E Minor, op. 17; composed 1908) — I remember hearing the Second Symphony in 1959 at the BSO conducted by Izler Solomon, and even in its considerably cut version it seemed too long. But these heavies have survived 100 years of misunderstanding to undergo reconsideration, and Rachmaninoff’s whole career is being reconsidered too (he was twice offered and twice turned down the directorship of the Boston Symphony a century ago) in the light of the music of his last years: the Paganini Rhapsody, which became very popular (in part, one assumes, because of the overblown 18th variation) despite a major growth in originality, and finally the Third Symphony and Symphonic Dances (op. 45, his last work, completed in 1940). Dislocation and exile from his native land, and a degree of retirement from his career as a traveling pianist, brought him eventually to America where he settled down to the task of achieving his fullest expression as a composer. By himself he discovered a new harmonic language built out of the old, with some of Debussy’s in the background, and a new clarity in orchestral style that I think he learned at least in part from Stravinsky, with whom he became friends not in Russia or Switzerland or Paris but as neighbors in Hollywood. (Rachmaninoff had told other friends that he knew all along that Stravinsky didn’t like his music; for his part, he confided privately that he considered Firebird then to be the greatest composition by any Russian. This tells you a lot.)

BSO bass section (Winslow Townson photo)

The Third Symphony is in three movements, with much variation in tempo along the way in each. The first begins with a slow introduction with a theme that later becomes cyclic, followed by a vigorous Allegro; the second is a three-part Adagio with a fast scherzo in the middle, a little-used but honorable 19th-century formal model; the third is another Allegro of unflagging energy and continuity, capped by the Dies irae melody that remained a haunting leitmotive in half a dozen of Rachmaninoff’s works. I especially liked the tempo rubato repeatedly invoked in the first movement, as when the Second Theme appears in E major (very similar in sound to the finale of the Second Symphony, but completely reborn); the emphatic appearance of the “Tristan” chord before the Recapitulation (Rachmaninoff thought Wagner’s opera a terrible bore); the four solo violas (pp. 68-69 of the mini score), seemingly lifted from The Rite of Spring, accompanying flute and harp; the C-sharp-major sound at p. 123, which reappears in no. 3 of the Symphonic Dances; the Petrushka harmonies at p. 145 which sound absolutely original. The overall conception is that of a 19th-century Russian symphony fully reborn in the 20th with a completely personal voice that is Romantic, and in no way neoclassic; it doesn’t sound like anyone else, not Stravinsky, not Debussy, and certainly not like Tchaikovsky. One can imagine why it was not popular when it was born 85 years ago; there is every reason for it to become popular now and forever.

Andris Nelsons conducted convincingly, with full control and command and entirely without ostentation. His beat is precise and well accepted by the orchestra, who gave their best in music of exceptional complexity and difficulty, and achieved complete success. Hearty congratulations to all.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.


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

  1. This is a nice piece of writing, professor.

    Comment by Bill Blake — October 23, 2021 at 1:21 pm

  2. “Overblown”: Might he not have thought first of the melody, and then dissected/analyzed it for the variations?

    Comment by martin cohn — October 23, 2021 at 7:00 pm

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