“Could there be a better program?” That was Benjamin Zander waxing enthusiastic (as is his wont) in a promo video for the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s Symphony Hall concert Sunday afternoon. And the short answer was “Not really.” The program comprised the Prelude to Musorgsky’s unfinished opera Khovanshchina; Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, with Romanian soloist Andrei Ioniță; and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the Eroica. All three are masterpieces, to start. The concerto served as a kind of stand-in for the opera, in that it negates the serene optimism of the prelude in the same disturbing way that the opera does. As for the concerto and the symphony, though their sound picture is very different, they’re in the same key, E-flat major. At one point, Shostakovich even appears to quote from the Eroica. A well-chosen program, then—and well performed, too.
Khovanshchina, which Musorgsky* began work on in 1872 but had barely orchestrated at his death in 1881, is set toward the end of the 17th century, just before the reign of Peter the Great (1689–1725). The libretto details the infighting among the numerous claimants to the throne vacated by the death of Tsar Feodor III in 1682, as well as the resistance (and its political consequences) of Russia’s Old Believers to the liturgical reforms that Orthodox Patriarch Nikon had introduced in the 1650s.
The two most popular orchestrations of the opera are those by Rimsky-Korsakov (1881–82) and Shostakovich (1958). On Sunday Zander and the BPO offered the sweeter Rimsky-Korsakov version, as they did when they last played the piece, in 2018. Dawn over the River Moskva, as this introduction is known, opens, Andante tranquillo, with a bit of scurrying in the violas and then solo flute. Shadowed by the second violins, solo oboe initiates a folk-like tune that it will pass on to solo clarinet; meanwhile assorted other winds trill like thrush nightingales. Musorgsky here envisioned the sun rising, its rays glinting off the domes of the Kremlin cathedrals and the river. Another oboe solo leads to a central section where the Kremlin bell towers—represented by French horns, timpani, and chime—begin to toll. The tempo accelerates to Piú mosso, quasi moderato, and the winds surge into the cheerful bustle of early-morning activity. Then the mood grows reflective as solo clarinet, flute, and horn muse on the day ahead.
The fluid opening phrase of the violas attested to Zander’s attention to detail. The solo winds got ample room to express themselves, and everyone, from Lisa Hennessy’s flute to Peggy Pearson’s oboe, Rane Moore’s clarinet, and Kevin Owen’s horn, took full advantage; Moore and Pearson were particularly heartrending. Timpani and chime were discreet in the bell section, but the horns were ominous enough to suggest the bloodshed that, in the opera, will ensue. And though Zander bathed the Piú mosso section in sunlight, there was an appropriate note of apprehension in the closing statements from Moore, Hennessy, Moore, and finally Owen.
The program booklet, unusually, provided times for all three pieces. The prelude was listed as lasting five minutes. I’m guessing Zander took six. He certainly gave the piece the space it needs.
Musorgsky’s 17th-century Moscow and Shostakovich’s 20th-century Leningrad might seem worlds apart, but the First Cello Concerto, which premiered in Leningrad in 1959, suggests that the turmoil of Khovanshchina isn’t so different from that of Stalinist Russia. The first of the four movements, Allegretto, begins with a four-note figure in the cello that Shostakovich recycled from the “Death of the Heroes” segment of his score for the 1948 film The Young Guard. Although it substitutes G–F-flat–C-flat–B-flat for his signature D–S–C–H (German for the notes D–E-flat–C–B), the rhythm stamps his identity on this movement. While the orchestra gallops along underneath, the soloist goes on a dizzy slalom, zigzagging from 2/2 to 3/2 and back, seemingly just a step (as so often in Shostakovich) ahead of the secret police. A second theme seems pinned to the same note; a third invokes the “Lullaby” from Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. Throughout the cello engages in conversation with the one French horn and a solo clarinet, as if they were fellow escapees.
The Moderato second movement casts the orchestra as chorus. It intones a brief, mournful theme; the French horn answers, and then the cello enters with a haunting lullaby that might be a prayer of thanksgiving for having achieved a moment of safety. Solo clarinet and horn continue the conversation, which builds to an anguished climax; the horn makes one last statement and then the cello, in harmonics, converses with the celesta, as if turning to Heaven.
What follows this moment of eternity is a five-minute Cadenza, in four parts separated by plucked chords, where the cello takes up the themes of the previous movements and at one point echoes the beginning of the Eroica’s Marcia funebre. The Allegro con moto rondo finale incorporates a distorted version of the Georgian folk song “Suliko” (said to be a favorite of Stalin’s) and echoes of the original motto theme along with sardonic four-note commentary by the timpani. Voices are raised; “Suliko,” the motto theme, and the ritornello all compete with one another until seven strokes from the timpani bring everyone up short. The concerto concludes, as it began, in E-flat major, but it doesn’t finish so much as stop.
Shostakovich composed the concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich; it took him two months to write it and Rostropovich just four days to memorize it. In his pre-concert talk, Zander spoke about the transformative experience of hearing Rostropovich play the piece in 1960 and suggested that Ioniţă, the grand prize winner in the cello division of the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition, would bring a similar demonic energy to his interpretation.
That wasn’t immediately apparent. Ioniță’s first four notes augured a reading more in line with the understated, open-ended traversals of Shostakovich’s symphonies that Andris Nelsons has been conducting with the BSO. The sound from his 1671 Giovanni Battista Rogeri cello seemed a little thin and underpowered, and he didn’t really dig into the first movement. The BPO, meanwhile, was serving up full-throated Shostakovich, with, again, outstanding contributions from Owen and Moore. At times the orchestra covered the soloist. I wondered whether my usual seat at the back of Symphony Hall’s second balcony wasn’t the best choice for this piece.
The Moderato went better. Conductors tend to ignore the tempo marking; Zander at least got close to it while creating a hushed, expectant atmosphere. Ioniță was more at ease here, though his tone in the lullaby was neutral and his phrasing a bit abstract. In the eerie closing duet between cello harmonics and celesta, the celesta is often too soft. Here Rasa Vitkauskaite’s playing was perfectly judged.
The Cadenza was mesmerizing. Ioniță set a slow tempo, and everything fell into place: tone, dynamics, phrasing. He took special care with the chords that separate the four sections, and they sounded like musical motifs rather than mere markers. The entire movement built toward the fourth section, where there was no want of forward motion or virtuosity. But the finale reprised the problems of the opening movement: the cello wasn’t a strong presence, and here Zander’s Allegro con moto seemed short on moto.
The concerto runs some 28 minutes, so there was surely time for an encore. Ioniță seemed uncertain as to whether the audience really wanted one; the audience was quite certain that it did. Eventually he sat down and announced he would stay in the Soviet realm with a piece by Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze (1925–91). “Chonguri,” from Tsintsadze’s Five Pieces on Folk Themes, is a charming 70-second plucked miniature. There was time for a second encore; Ioniță looked even more doubtful, but after no little encouragement from Zander he announced the Bourrées from Bach’s Third Suite for Unaccompanied Cello. Here, as in the Cadenza from the concerto, everything seemed to have been rethought. His approach was light and lilting, his tone was warm and filled the hall, the piece danced. It was easy to see why the Tchaikovsky Competition judges awarded him first prize. I wondered again whether I shouldn’t have been sitting closer for the concerto.
The Eroica is an eternal challenge, partly because it’s so familiar, partly because it has so many stories and interpretations attached. There was a period, from late 1803 to mid 1804, when Beethoven was ready to name the symphony Bonaparte or else dedicate it to Napoleon—perhaps because he saw Napoleon as having brought stability to Europe, perhaps because Austria and France were on good terms and Bonaparte represented a possible source of patronage. By early 1805, however, Austria and France were headed toward Austerlitz and Beethoven was no longer planning a move to Paris. All mention of Bonaparte eventually disappeared from the title page, replaced by the title Sinfonia Eroica, a dedication to Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz, and the words “To celebrate the memory of a great man.”
The other “inspiration” for the Eroica was Prometheus, who in Beethoven’s 1801 ballet The Creatures of Prometheus brings a pair of statues to life. 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. The music for the ballet’s finale was a contredanse that, to Beethoven, represented enlightened reform, and he repurposed the tune in the finale of the Eroica.
We have, then, a symphony that’s both Napoleonic and Promethean. The battle is joined in the Allegro con brio, and a new order is promised. The Marcia funebre celebrates the fallen heroes (though Beethoven might also have had Prometheus’s death at the hands of Melpomene in mind). The boisterous Scherzo is abetted by a Trio of glowing French horns, and then in the Allegro molto finale Beethoven creates the new order, starting with the bass line of the contredanse in variations and building up to the full theme. Masters and servants dancing together was certainly a revolutionary idea in 1805.
Two hundred years later, however, we’ve heard the Eroica so often that the revolution seems to have come and gone. The fine Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra performances led by Jean-Marie Zeitouni in 2012 and Richard Egarr in 2015 gave an idea of what the symphony might have sounded like at its premiere; so do the recordings by Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nations, with their pared-down forces (32 strings), period instruments, gut strings, “untempered” tuning,” antiphonal seating of first and second violins, and tempos that, corresponding to Beethoven’s metronome markings, seem startlingly fast.
None of that applied to Sunday’s performance. Zander’s strings, for one, numbered 62. There are, of course, other ways to approach the Eroica, but Zander is a firm believer in Beethoven’s tempo markings. If he didn’t quite restart the revolution, that’s largely because the plushness of 62 strings—not just the BPO’s, but any modern orchestra’s—is always going to make it seem that the bourgeoisie have infiltrated. Still, like the last Eroica I’d heard from him, in 2015 with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, this was a valiant attempt. My very rough timings were 16, 13, 6, and 11 minutes—not far off the mark set by the smaller ensembles of Savall and Roger Norrington.
In the pre-concert talk, Zander suggested that taking Beethoven’s initial metronome mark of 60 dotted minims would cause the first two staccato chords to blur. That made sense: on Sunday those first two chords were not rushed. They got everyone’s attention, and then the orchestra took off. The second theme moved right along; the third had just enough give to keep the pace from seeming one-dimensional.
Beethoven at one point removed the exposition repeat, fearing the symphony would be too long. Later he decided he wanted it in after all, and that’s how the first published score appeared. Older recordings, usually at a slower tempo, tend to omit it. Zander chose to play it, and at his tempo the decision made sense. The rest of the movement managed to suggest the din and chaos of battle without sacrificing too much forward motion. The new E-minor theme that pops up late in the development and again in the coda sounded entirely natural, and the horn counterpoint right at the end was delectable.
Beethoven marked the Marcia funebre “Adagio assai,” suggesting a slow movement, but his metronome mark of 80 quavers is faster than most conductors—or listeners—are comfortable with. Zander rose to the challenge; this was a funeral march that didn’t mourn the dead so much as celebrate their memory. The opening eight bars, alert as opposed to the usual trudge, were especially cogent. The one minor disappointment was the way Pearson’s wistful oboe solo got submerged at the climax of the middle section Maggiore.
In the pre-concert talk, Zander wondered why, if Beethoven’s metronome marks in general are so controversial, no one has any problem with his Scherzo tempos. The Eroica’s is marked at 116 measures to the minute, and that’s how you almost always hear it. Zander managed both power and wit, and the three horns had an appropriate rustic edge. The Allegro molto finale is, according to Zander, the movement that caused him to withdraw his planned Philharmonia release of the symphony on Teldec; he felt his interpretation had been too mechanical. Sunday’s performance was headlong, with a sly opening take on the bass line and intense fugue sections. Like the rest of the symphony, it could have had a tad more flexibility, but it never sounded mechanical. The Poco Andante hymn section, which usually brings the movement to a standstill, was Andante rather than reverent; the coda went at a true Presto. If the reading wasn’t a revolution, it was in many ways a revelation.
*There was a time when the name of the composer of Khovanshchina was transliterated into English as Moussorgsky. When the French spelling fell out of favor, it became Mussorgsky. More recently, you’re likely to see Musorgsky. That’s because the Russian name has just one s; the double ss spelling developed from the idea of keeping the sound from being pronounced as a z. In Russia, moreover, the name is generally pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, and the g isn’t pronounced at all. The original family name, Musorsky, translates to something like “trash”; it appears that Musorgsky’s elder brother Filaret introduced the g to give the name a more flattering etymology. That prompted those who didn’t know better to shift the stress to the second syllable, but Musorgsky himself seems to have continued to pronounce it MU-sorsky.
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.