Wow, can it really have been almost two years since we last sat in Symphony Hall watching an in-the-flesh BSO performance? But it was for more than that we were pumped to be there Thursday: Andris Nelsons and the kitchen crew were serving up a full-fat helping of new, old, and protein-rich goods; in between, the redoubtable Hilary Hahn dispensed leaner Mozart. The evening did not disappoint, at least not much.
After some words of New Year’s welcome (“I don’t do much talking here, I just do this [moves his hand up and down and side to side]” and a wish that we will soon be able to say Good-Bye to All That, Nelsons welcomed by leading the premiere, delayed by All That, of Heinz Karl (“HK”) Gruber’s Short Stories from the Vienna Woods, (Kurzgeschichten aus dem Wienerwald), a suite taken from his 2014 opera Tales from the Vienna Woods (Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald). The connection to Johann Strauss Jr.’s celebrated waltz of the same name is indirect: the opera is based (by way of a libretto by Michael Sturminger) on a 1931 play by the Croatian-born Austro-Hungarian author Ödön von Horváth (can that name have been made up? Horváth is the Hungarian word for a Croatian!). In his day, Horváth was a popular populist of stage and page, spoken of in the same sentence as Bertolt Brecht (for more details on all this, on Gruber, and on the musical context of the suite, we strongly recommend you consult Robert Kirzinger’s note here). The title of his play was in turn taken from the Strauss op. 325, though the plot revolves mostly around domestic doings of a bourgeois Viennese family. The only plot detail that arguably matters for listeners to the suite is the use of a honky-tonk piano to depict a character who is practicing playing a waltz—badly.
The Short Stories suite, commissioned jointly by the BSO and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Nelsons’s other gig, consists of seven numbers, which Gruber indicated could be performed mix-and-match so long as nos. 1 and 7 were first and last; this performance was of nos. 1, 2, 4, and 7. The first of them, Introduktion und Lied von der Wachau, opens with a mighty blast from the huge orchestra, actually a bit suggestive of Weill, before settling down more lyrically, from which the song (originally a soprano aria) arises, set here slyly for literally and figuratively muted trumpet, so delicately one strains to hear it—props here to Thomas Siders for the ravishing solo. Waltz tempi begin to stir. The second movement, Walzer-Splitter (Splintered Waltzes) also crashes in, all black in the brass, but slightly unhinged, a mix of heavy artillery and Loony Tunes. It too settles down but to a series of crescendi with impressively layered sectional polyphony, and some tender moments undercut by sinister accompaniments. The next-performed movement, Wie im Fluge (In a flash) starts off invoking a kind of tonal Webern soundscape, but turns to a 1920s-‘30s city modern esthetic, jazzy and big-band-ish, until the definitely-not-Jazzbo-Jones piano enters at the end. The piano picks up where it left off, so to speak, as the suite’s finale, Poka infernale, begins, a nightmare carnival with Nino Rota oompahs and a frenzied rush to a long raspberry. The music revisits the suite’s (and opera’s) opening blast, and nobody, it would appear, lived happily ever after. The performance gave every indication of flawlessness, and as nearly always with Gruber it was raucous theatrical fun. Well-deserved call-outs were bestowed, along with Siders and principal cellist Blaise Dejardin, on the hyperactive percussion section.
A work like Tales, and by extension Short Stories, does not come on a blank cultural slate, of course. The collapse of pre-World War I bourgeois society through the medium of demonic or maniacal waltzes was most famously wrought by Ravel’s La Valse. Without reading Horváth’s play or Sturminger’s libretto it’s hard to measure how Gruber’s angle differs, except to note that the play is set a generation after the war and therefore inevitably depicts the continued dissolution of the old social certainties and the rigidities of the class structure. One must presume that Gruber’s focus is not entirely historical, and that some reference is warranted to the resumption or continuation of that process today, with outcome TBD. Where Gruber‘s perspective observably differs from Ravel’s is in taking this historical knowledge for granted and showing a fractured world through a shattered window,
A much serener world materialized as the power tools got hauled away for the artisanal pleasures of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219. The year 1775 back home in Salzburg was a busy one for Mozart, though in writing the last four of his five violin concerti all evidence so far suggests that he was making work for himself, as nobody has yet identified for whom else they could have been written. The A major may be the most popular of his set, and it is certainly sublime in its subtlety and wit. The first movement, for example, begins the usual orchestral exposition with a pretty bare-bones tune comprising A major arpeggios (amusingly offsetting the scale degrees on strong beats). When the violin enters, it’s with a completely unrelated adagio passage (perhaps the inspiration for what Beethoven did in his Piano Concerto No. 1), followed by the “real” exposition, with, depending on your point of view, a descant over the arpeggiated melody or the actual melody that the composer hid the first time around (the latter is how we read it, since it appears this way in the recapitulation). Clever clogs, that Mozart. The movement also features some sharp harmonic jolts associated with the second subject and the beginning of the development, which Nelsons took pains to underline.
Hahn’s played throughout with spirited sensibility, without trying to overpower the line, and giving all nuances their due without twee over-refinement. One issue with the Mozart concerti, if you want to call it that, is that they’re not the most virtuosic pieces he could have written, or indeed had written, and so soloists must, as it were, make difficulty for themselves in the cadenzas, and Hahn duly came loaded with three of her own. The one for the first movement was thicker-textured with double-stops than the writing in the score, but perfectly in character. The slow movement (amazingly, Mozart was upbraided for making it too recherché, so he wrote a substitute that is now listed as the Adagio K. 261) elicited a performance both sweet and tidy, using soft dynamics to make important phrasing points. The collaboration between Hahn and Nelsons here was most in evidence here as a truly joint creation. The cadenza was long and intricate by slow-movement standards (and, let’s face it, slow-movement cadenzas aren’t all that common). The finale, a rondo with one of Mozart’s most famous tunes at its head, and a delicious, nonchalant, and in the event consequential lick at its tail, produced the most calisthenic music-making in the piece. Especially in the episodes (of which the third and most famous is the “Turkish” music that gave the concerto as a whole its sobriquet) Hahn and the orchestra stepped up the welly and provided a harder edge. Hahn’s cadenza transitioned brilliantly to the main theme, to whose final appearance in the coda Nelsons supplied the slightest ritard to send it off on its flippant arpeggiated ending. Hahn obliged the well-packed hall’s thundering applause with an encore, the Gigue from Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E.
To anchor the evening, Nelsons loaded for bear again, expounded the virtues of Prokofiev’s unsubtle but mighty Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, op. 100, written within the period of a month in 1944. Of the prominent World War II symphonies (Shostakovich 7 and 8, Vaughan Williams 5, Barber 2 and Copland 3), Prokofiev’s seems on the surface to relate most closely to the RVW, as it appears to offer a morale boost for the home front; it nevertheless is a more complex affair, with ample roaring and shrieking alongside anything that could be considered anodyne, and as always there was the overarching need to please The Boss. In its opening Andante, Nelsons allowed its expansive main melody full space and resonance, reveling in the pure sonority of it, its phrases rolling like a fine brandy in the snifter. It seemed to these ears like Nelsons wanted to find an architectural approach to the symphony, the way one does with Bruckner. We’re not sure this symphony fully supports that, but certainly it gives ample opportunity to build climaxes, of which Nelsons is a notable master. The final pages of this movement do offer a “top this” challenge—can anyone get an orchestra in a hall to make that much noise? Maybe not, but we’ll give this one high marks for effort.
The scherzo is something of a set-piece, propulsive and raw, heroic and cowering. The transition from the trio, with its screaming clarinets (stridently and brilliantly rendered by the whole section), a slowed down version of the main theme, snarls and snaps. Nelsons got the propulsion perfectly; the rest could have benefitted from a bit more bleeding edge. The slow movement, a radiant extended song, highlights the strings as no other movement does, and Nelsons brought out its richness. The rhythmically punchy central section, with its hints at the first movement theme, gave ample scope to Nelsons’s climax-building. In this movement it is particularly evident how Prokofiev, like Mahler, makes sure that the melodic and harmonic phrasing do not coincide, thus prolonging the drama to precise inflection points.
One sometimes hears the slow movement and finale taken almost attacca, but Nelsons here took a longish pause. The body of the movement, after a gentle introduction recalling the first movement theme, is a rondo whose main theme brims with vigor and optimism, though most of the time Prokofiev’s dynamics keep it suppressed, until about four-fifths of the way through it explodes. There’s one broadly grand theme in the central episode, which returns in full color at the end, but the main problem for a conductor in this movement is to keep the middle from sagging as the momentum slows. With an eye to that final climactic moment, Nelsons may not have taken enough risks with it, and as a result one is left with a vague unease as to how really great a piece this symphony is. It’s certainly popular, probably just behind the “Classical” Symphony in Prokofiev’s output. And with all that noise, it’s a crowd-pleaser.