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Titanic Rachmaninov, Supercharged Prokofiev


Philippe Jordan (Winslow Townson photo)

This weekend’s BSO concerts open with music that the orchestra has never played in Symphony Hall. That happens all the time, of course. Usually the piece is a contemporary work, perhaps even a BSO commission, something the audience has never heard before and may never hear again. But the selection Swiss guest conductor Philippe Jordan has chosen to start with is a familiar one from the 19th century, so popular, in fact, that it’s regularly played on WCRB: the Overture to Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor. That’s right. Arthur Fiedler gave the overture its Symphony Hall premiere with the Pops in 1930. The BSO has offered it twice at Tanglewood, under Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Yuri Temirkanov. But Thursday marked the piece’s BSO/Symphony Hall debut. Jordan’s all-Russian program continued with Soviet-born Israeli-American soloist Yefim Bronfman in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto and concluded with a suite that the conductor fashioned from Prokofiev’s ballet score Romeo and Juliet. Those two pieces are played all the time in Symphony Hall, but seldom as stupendously as they were Thursday.

Last Sunday in the Hall, Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic also had started off with a Russian opera intro, the Prelude to Khovanshchina. Musorgsky never got round to orchestrating the piece (Zander conducted the Rimsky-Korsakov version), but at least he left a piano score. Borodin didn’t even get that far with his overture; Alexander Glazunov completed and orchestrated it, drawing on his recollection of hearing Borodin play the piece on piano and also on sketches the composer left.  

Prince Igor follows the campaign of the 12th-century title royal against the Turkic Polovtsy people. That campaign is not a huge success: Igor and his son Vladimir get captured, and then Vladimir falls in love with Konchakovna, the daughter of one of the Polovtsian khans. Igor and Vladimir have a chance to escape, but Vladimir doesn’t want to leave Konchakovna behind. In the end, Vladimir stays and is allowed to marry his beloved. Igor flees and returns home to Putivl (now part of eastern Ukraine), not exactly a conquering hero but welcomed all the same by his wife Yaroslavna and his people.  

The overture begins with a slow introduction drawn from the preamble to Igor’s act-two aria “No sleep, no rest for my tormented soul” and continues with Polovtsian fanfares and then descending runs drawn from Igor’s homecoming duet with Yaroslavna. The two main subjects are Konchakovna’s act-three plea to Vladimir (it became the music for “The Olive Tree,” from the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet) and a pair of themes from “No sleep, no rest” (“Oh give, give me freedom” and “You alone, darling, love”).

Jordan, who was making his BSO debut, is the son of the late Swiss conductor Armin Jordan, who led the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande for a number of years. Philippe Jordan was recently the music director of the Opéra National de Paris and the principal conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra; he’s now music director at the Vienna Staatsoper. For the Borodin, he had a score on his music stand but he never opened it. He began at a tempo appropriate to the Andante marking (i.e., not an Adagio) before charging into the Allegro with strong bass, crisp brass fanfares, and descending runs that sizzled. The solos were characterful: Thomas Martin’s clarinet in the “Olive Tree” theme and Richard Sebring’s French horn in the “You alone” melody. Jordan let “You alone” sing out, both here and in the reprise, where the BSO’s sumptuous strings took it up. The overture ends in a blaze of intertwining themes; here every strand was audible.      

Rachmaninov’s D-minor Piano Concerto got its Symphony Hall debut from the composer himself, in 1919, and the piece has been on 18 programs in all, four of them with Vladimir Horowitz. I’m actually surprised it hasn’t been played more often. Rachmaninov wrote the concerto for his 1909 American tour, dedicating it to his friend Josef Hofmann, but for a time it seemed the composer himself, with his huge hands and long, widely spaced fingers, was the only pianist capable of negotiating it. The close-knit melody that opens the Allegro ma non tanto might suggest a folk tune, or a Russian Orthodox chant, though Rachmaninov insisted that “It simply wrote itself!” The bluesy second subject is by turns militant and lyrical. As if these themes hadn’t had ample room in their own movement, the first one pops up unexpectedly toward the end of the Adagio, when solo clarinet and bassoon take it on a 3/8 waltz turn, and then they both hijack the development of the Alla breve finale.

Horowitz made the first recording of the concerto, with Albert Coates and the London Symphony, in 1930; Rachmaninov didn’t record it till 1939–40, with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, when he was 66. Both pianists observed the composer’s suggested cuts. It was Horowitz who made the work famous; his tense, driven performances ruled the roost until 1959, when RCA released Van Cliburn’s Carnegie Hall appearance with Kirill Kondrashin and the Symphony of the Air. Cliburn set a new standard for the Third: uncut, expansive, heroic. The 1960s brought recordings by Byron Janis (more like Horowitz), Evgeny Mogilevsky (more like Cliburn), and Alexis Weissenberg (staring down harmonies as if he were Pierre Boulez conducting Sacre), not to mention a very fine Cliburn performance with Erich Leinsdorf and the BSO at Tanglewood. Subsequent landmarks have included Martha Argerich’s volcanic 1982 reading and the one-of-a-kind 1995 account from David Helfgott, whose life story inspired the 1996 film Shine.

Bronfman recorded the concerto in 2001 with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia. He’s also played it twice with the BSO at Tanglewood, in 2009 and 2019, but Thursday marked his first performance of it in Symphony Hall. In an interview, he’s said of the piece, “Every time I play it, I try to approach it in a very fresh way, as if I’m trying to tell myself I have absolutely no history with that piece. I try to look at it as if I were looking at it for the first time.”

His 2001 recording (which I have not heard) lasts 43 minutes, which is on the expansive side, in line with Cliburn’s. His 2004 Tokyo performance with Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic (available on youtube) ran just 38-1/2 minutes, more like Janis. Thursday’s reading was closer to the Tokyo version, and to the way Rachmaninov himself played the piece, at least to judge by the composer’s recording. The initial Allegro non tanto theme was simple and unaffected; it actually did sound fresh. Bronfman’s quiet demeanor belied the powerful, bell-like tone he drew from his instrument, and the lucidity of his passagework—pointillist rather than impressionist—was mesmerizing in the way it pointed up the logic of Rachmaninov’s architecture. His swift pace allowed him to slow for and inflect the second theme without letting the line sag; moments of poetic musing followed outbursts that were passionate but not hysterical. He played the longer of Rachmaninov’s two cadenzas and justified the choice (Rachmaninov himself came to prefer the shorter one) with a massive reading that built in intensity. Then he was as direct at the end as he had been at the beginning.

The Intermezzo is marked Adagio, which suggests a slow movement, but Rachmaninov’s recording is a reminder that, just as Andante doesn’t mean Adagio, so Adagio doesn’t mean Largo. This was a headlong traversal, Bronfman’s thunderous entrance followed by an ebb and flow of emotion and astonishingly lucid and musical passagework underpinning the 3/8 clarinet-and-bassoon duet. He brought more ferocious energy to the finale; the second theme surged and maintained the forward motion indicated by the Alla breve time signature; yet he was heartrending in the returning second theme from the first movement.

Jordan’s extroverted accompaniment was in synch with Bronfman in terms of speed and straightforwardness. The standout soloing included Keisuke Wakao’s pungent oboe at the beginning and end of the Intermezzo and Thomas Martin and Rick Ranti in the 3/8 duet. At times the accompaniment seemed too extroverted; the horn playing wasn’t always dolce as marked. Or perhaps I just wanted to hear Bronfman’s every note.

The applause from the close-to-full house brought the pianist back for four solo bows. It did not, however, elicit an encore. Bronfman, now 63, might have felt he’d done enough, but I suspect the real explanation was the length of the program. As it was, Thursday’s concert didn’t end till 10:15.

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet runs close to two and a half hours, too long for a symphony audience, but his writing is so vivid, and Shakespeare’s play so familiar, that a thoughtful abridgment can tell the story. Prokofiev himself extracted three suites from his score, but, like the suites to The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, they’re all over the place. These days, however, conductors seem more and more inclined to create their own suites. We’ve heard two such compilations recently, Zander’s with the BPO in November 2017 and Ken-David Masur’s with the BSO in October 2018.

Yefim Bronfman, piano (Winslow Townson photo)

For this week’s concerts, Jordan has chosen “Montagues and Capulets,” “Juliet as a Young Child,” “Madrigal,” “Minuet (Arrival of the Guests”), “Masks,” “Romeo and Juliet (Balcony Scene),” “Friar Lawrence,” “The Death of Tybalt,” “Romeo and Juliet Before Parting,” “Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb,” and “The Death of Juliet.” All are from the first two suites except for “The Death of Juliet,” which rounds out the third. Running about 50 minutes, these 11 selections cover most of the play. “Madrigal,” in which Romeo and Juliet steal a few moments to themselves while the Capulet ball guests go in to dinner, ought to follow “Minuet” and “Masks,” in which Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio don masks in order to crash said ball. I’m guessing Jordan made the switch because the correct order would put the lush romance of “Madrigal” and “Balcony Scene” back to back.

“Montagues and Capulets” is also out of order, but that’s Prokofiev’s doing. There’s no such number in the ballet; for the First Suite, the composer combined the ballet’s No. 6, “The Prince Gives His Order,” and No. 13, “The Knights’ Dance.” “The Prince Gives His Order,” in which Verona’s Prince Escalus tells the warring Montagues and Capulets to desist, reprises the ballet’s opening measures and is a great place to start. “The Knights’ Dance,” however, depicts the dancing of the Capulet lords and ladies, with a middle section in which Juliet is presented to Paris, so it should follow “Arrival of the Guests” and “Masks.”

None of that mattered in Thursday’s supercharged interpretation and performance. Armin Jordan recorded all three Prokofiev suites in 1992; perhaps that’s why his son seems so familiar with this music. Whereas he did turn score pages during the Rachmaninov concerto, for his Romeo and Juliet he had no score at all; even the music stand disappeared. His tempos in both directions might have been a bit extreme to accompany ballet dancers, but the drama they brought to the concert hall was just right. And Prokofiev’s score, with its innumerable solos (more than I can credit), brought out the best in the orchestra.

“The Knights’ Dance” conveyed patrimony and repressed desire in equal measure, with glorious thumping from the trombones and tuba (Mike Rylance), a sly tenor-saxophone solo (Ryan Yuré), and delicate celesta (Vytas Baksys). “Juliet as a Young Child” featured dreamy solos from clarinet (William R. Hudgins), cello (Blaise Déjardin), and flute (Elizabeth Klein); the flute, which Prokofiev uses to represent Juliet, was back in “Madrigal.” We had a quickstepping “Minuet” enlivened by horn (James Sommerville) and trumpet (Thomas Rolfs), a snickering “Masks,” and then the “Balcony Scene,” luscious and tender to start before growing ecstatic, with soaring trumpet and wistful cor anglais (Robert Sheena).

The brief “Friar Lawrence,” characterized by horn and bass clarinet (David Martins), was followed by a fleet, violent “Death of Tybalt” (more strong work from trombones and tuba, plus Timothy Genis’s timpani and bass drum), and then an ominous, tick-tock-steady “Romeo and Juliet Before Parting,” where Jordan suggested the clock running out on the lovers. “Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb” was heavy and anguished, with dark brass and more timpani and bass drum. It finished with a reverent “Death of Juliet,” dawn breaking as Montagues and Capulets reconciled.

I wondered whether, given the length of the program and the popularity of both the concerto and its soloist, the audience might thin out at intermission. That did not seem to happen. Those who stayed were amply rewarded.

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.


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