The BSO closed its subscription season on Saturday evening to a near capacity house at Symphony Hall. Soprano Marlis Petersen’s cancellation forced the omission of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” and Final Scene from Salome from the intended all-Strauss program—a change that gave us the opportunity to relish principal cellist Blaise Déjardin’s concerto début instead. Andris Nelsons helmed the band in Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor as well as Strauss’s “Dreaming by the Fireside” from Four Symphonic Interludes from Intermezzo and the tone poem massif Eine Alpinsinfonie. Strauss provided the entrée and sating final course to the rich musical meal, while the French concerto served as a refreshing relevé.
“Dreaming by the Fireside” opened in a Lohengrin-style long legatissimo line. A syncopated pulse from the upper strings illustrated the liminal flames of what became a growing fire: a sumptuous melody woven by the lush cello section and cor anglais, transmuting through sound and texture a quintessential Wagnerian episode that provided the desired gemütlichkeit affect. Full-voiced, silken strings ornamented by the sumptuous winds and brass achieved the climax. Nelsons allowed his flock space to breath these shining long tones; his sober and literal beat, while not as infamously sober as Strauss’s own, permitted the BSO to reach Romantic heights without excess altitude.
As Bryan Gilliam’s informative program notes explained, Intermezzo arrived in the middle of Strauss’s “tryptic of marriage operas,” and the only one of the trio with a libretto by the composer (the project was rejected by Jedermann creator, von Hofmannsthal). The work is semi-autobiographical in nature, written during a turbulent patch with Strauss’s notoriously high-strung soprano wife, Pauline; when fellow Straussian soprano Lotte Lehmann, who premiered the role of Christine, congratulated Pauline on the “marvelous present to you from your husband,” Pauline retorted, characteristically, “I don’t give a damn.” Strauss intended it as Germanic Verismo, that being Zeitoper. “Wagner was the first composer for whom the dual personae of bourgeois and artist were in constant conflict…Strauss, however, rejected this conflict, judging such a late-Romantic opposition as unfeasible for the 20th century and embracing the bourgeoisie of a new generation.” This musical excerpt achieved the desired effect; indeed, it reveals the same bourgeois sentiment that trademarks Strauss’s general style.
While the opening Strauss is a novelty item in the Canon, Saint-Saëns’s First Cello Concerto is a pleasing staple of any cellist’s repertoire. In cyclic form, it is not dissimilar in structural and thematic handling to those of Schumann and the piano/violin concerti of Mendelssohn; the three movements run attacca. One of this cellist-reviewer’s teachers, who studied with the French cello luminary Maurice Gendron, relayed the story that the maestro would be called upon to play the concerto haphazardly; it was reliable, facile (enough) on the fingers, and a palatable crowd-pleaser. This much could be said about the enduring Neoclassical Romantic fusion style that is found in Saint-Saëns’s music.
Having just interviewed Blaise Déjardin on his recent “Audition Day” book [read more HERE], I was curious to discover his take. Dressed simply in a black shirt, the soloist entered to warm and welcoming applause from his fellow players and audience; this was clearly poised to be a family-affair. A declamatory A minor chord introduced Déjardin’s first solo statement. Exemplary musicianship and sumptuous timbre, piqued by an unmistakably French vibrato, defined his style.
This rendition gave the impression of a symphonic concerto: chamber music set with soloist and orchestra in the style of Don Quixote or even the intended effect of Brahms’ Violin Concerto. Rather than an overly showy display of technical supremacy, Déjardin treated listeners to a lyrical display of the French style, voicing the work as a conversation among colleagues. This battle of soloist vs. orchestra worked most of the time; though, as instrumental forces doubled, the soloist’s voice sometimes vanished.
The first movement transitioned to the minuet of the second. Here, Nelsons sculpted the contrasting dynamic phrases of the opening of this dance interlude with comic, almost Celibidachean dynamic gestures. Déjardin wove statements of rich Romanticism in the third movement that seemed to search for a legato imitative of Strauss. Long standing ovations greeted the conclusion of a concerto performance clearly enjoyed as a mutual effort by the band and its hometown fans.
Strauss’s cyclic “poem tome” [see reference review HERE] Eine Alpinsinfonie proved a complex evening-summit for even the hardiest listener; overheard, some audience members left during intermission because “Strauss is too complex.” It is unusual to pair these two genius composers who are aesthetic opposites: a juxtaposition that proved some cognitive dissonance. Following the relative conservatism of the Saint-Saëns, Strauss’s final tone poem of his œuvre emphasizes his stature as the stalwart of Neudeutsche Schule Late-Romanticism.
Strauss constructed a set of 22 scenes, or Kinobilder in essence, matching the epic cinematic quality of this massive music. The eerie silence of Nacht opened the alpine soundscape with fantastic brass chorales ominously sounding the close-up on the Heimgarten (where Strauss took his mountainous inspiration) or some gigantic Berg of primordial proportion. Nelsons depicted a truly imposing imminence in his direction. The transition to Sunrise overwhelmed, as did the subsequent fugal traversal of The Ascent. It could not be Strauss, or Mahler for that matter, without a requisite off-stage hunting troupe of horns to depict a Forest. Complex orchestration took every possible advantage of the vast assemblage of musicians.
This performance enrobed us in everything one could think of in Strauss: sweeping gesangsvoll melodies with characteristic leaps, string principal solos, brass chorales of potent majesty, genius orchestration, and moments of true apparition in their depiction of nature (notably the waterfall and thunderstorm). Middle sections seemed to muddy the overall image of the 50-or-so minute symphonic episode; one wonders what an Elegy has anything to do with the Alps? Certainly, the strongest structural points of the piece came in its opening and closing minutes, as well as the variable pronouncements of the poem’s main leitmotifs; The Summit climaxed in such a fashion with the organ’s entrance, a brass chorale, and a typical, lush string melody. The same trite comment made by traditionalist Rossini about Wagner would equally apply in some measure to Strauss: “lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour.”
As Gilliam elucidated, Strauss intended for this work to veer away from the religious and metaphysical leanings of his friend Mahler, opting to depict an earthly, atheistic redemption bound in nature. Nelsons offered us a literal reading. Sobriety that aided a clear transmutation of emotion in the opening Interlude obfuscated a naturalistic mysticism in this closing work.
Saturday evening’s concert concluded the rounds of essential rehearsals before audiences of the BSO and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestras that enabled the historic joint recordings of the complete orchestral (and other) works of Strauss. The 7-CD box is set to be released by Deutsche Grammaphon this week: HERE.
Curtain calls saluted cellist Martha Babcock, contrabassoonist Gregg Henegar, and violinist Bo Youp Hwang who complete their careers at the BSO in this season’s final concert.