IN: Reviews

Sunday BSO Pleasures: Percussive and Deep

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Jussen Brothers backstage (Hilary Scott photo)

Sunday dawned gloriously, and the Boston Symphony obliged the Tanglewood crowds with a fascinating two-part program: a lively new concerto for piano four-hands with an exotic and energetic percussive sound almost throughout, followed by one of the major works for chorus and orchestra in the repertory, a piece as smoothly and elegantly composed and performed as one could wish.

Anka kuşu (Phoenix) a new concerto for piano-four hands by Fazil Say (b. 1970), co-commissioned by the Boston Symphony as well as the Munich Philharmonic, the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, and the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, occupied the first half, and constituted the American premiere.

Both a distinguished pianist and composer, Fazil Say considers it his mission to link Turkey and the West on the one hand, and between Western music and Turkey on the other. He lived in New York for several years but currently resides in Istanbul. His willingness to oppose human rights conditions in Turkey has gotten him in trouble with the government. A conviction of blasphemy against Islam in 2013 was suspended as long as he committed no new offences for two years. He wrote a 10-minute work for the two brothers, Lucas and Arthur Jussen, the pianists for whom he also wrote the concerto that they played here on Sunday. When they scheduled that earlier work for a premiere in Turkey, officials refused to allow it because of Say’s political views. The Jussen brothers solved the problem by simply playing it as an unannounced (and unidentified) encore. See BMInt review HERE.

As that story indicates, the lively Jussens are willing to advocate for works that might cause political difficulty. The 20-minute concerto’s three movements—all untitled, except for the middle one, Scherzo—connect in close linkage. Heavy rhythms, irregular but recurring to create a strong forward drive in the first and last movements. Say demonstrates the piano’s status as a percussion instrument particularly evident by linking the solo instrument with the percussion section almost throughout, with the Scherzo movement as a sleek and lively contrast and the third movement taking up again the percussive nature of the first. The audience gave the soloists a vigorous ovation, which earned a lively encore—an arrangement of three movements from Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants, a version of wild and playful virtuosity.

After the joyously pounding rhythms of the first half came Brahms’s German Requiem, his largest work and one of his most serious. Brahms called it a “German” Requiem to make clear that it was in no sense based on the Latin Requiem of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. Brahms himself grew up in Protestant Hamburg, in any case, leaned more humanist than Christian. In fact, he makes no reference at all in the text that he shaped from Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible to the words Jesus or Christ. He suggested that he would like to call it a “Human Requiem,” available as a funerary tribute to any human being of any (or no) religious views.

Much of the mood is subdued, reflecting the opening sentiments—“Blessed are they that mourn”—to bring comfort to loved ones left behind after someone’s death. Andris Nelsons shaped the work in its wide-ranging dynamics with extraordinary refinement, smoothly sustaining the hushed passages, gently and gradually increasing them according to the composer’s careful shaping. The funeral march of the second movement, “Behold all flesh is as grass,” is played in the orchestra, then sung softly, then repeated at full volume. But that is by no means all. A consoling central section, where the “early and the latter rains” descends in purifying droplets from the flutes, before the entire funeral resumes. Through all of this, precise attention to the changing dynamics makes this somber music retain its power until, after the last full-voiced assertion, the brasses change the mood to an assertive positive fugue predicting the “redeemed of the Lord will come to Zion with rejoicing.” Throughout, theses subtle shapings conveyed expressive power.

The first solo voice appears in the third movement—a bass-baritone sings of the uncertainty of his life and its ending. Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang, who won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2007 and appeared with the BSO singing the title role in Mendelssohn’s Elijah in 2010, captured the sense of worry in the third movement and the still more dramatically, in the sixth movement he anticipated the last trumpet (in German, last trombone—Posaune—in Luther’s translation), which leads to a stunning choral fugue dispelling fear and doubt.

Between the two movements with baritone solos come two of the most radiant movements in the score: “How lovely is they dwelling place, O Lord of hosts,” a movement often sung separately from the rest of the score; and the movement with soprano solo, which Brahms composed after having already performed the work that he thought of as complete. Brahms conceived this as a tribute to his late mother, with a text declaring “I will comfort you as one whom his mother comforteth.” Ying Fan’s sweet, yet powerful soprano instrument gorgeously sustained a dramatic legato through shed, lawn and all time.

Andris Nelsons conducts Ying Fang and Shenyang (Hilary Scott photo)

The final movement restates some of the music from the opening, with a text that now offers rest to “the dead which die in the Lord,” linking the mourners and the mourned. Whenever Serge Koussevitzky rehearsed the German Requiem, he would turn the page to the beginning of this last movement and inform the orchestra and chorus, “Now comes de be-yoo-ti-ful mu-zeek.” On Sunday afternoon, the powerful and expressive Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the two soloists, and the Boston Symphony under the shaping hands of Andris Nelsons produced a richly “be-yoo-ti-ful” result that illuminated the day…and many to come.

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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