In the middle of his lecture to perhaps 150 people when I arrived in Symphony Hall for the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra concert, Benjamin Zander was in top cheerful form, never missing a beat or a bon mot, illustrating comfortably at an electric piano, and reminding everyone about Rachmaninoff’s remarkable career as a pianist as well as a conductor (I had remembered that he was twice offered, and twice declined, directorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra during his exile years), but above all about his outstanding gifts as a composer — and the audience listened and followed with total absorption as well as appreciation. After he finished, the hall began to fill almost to capacity.
Pianist Jonathan Biss, riding high with his ongoing Beethoven concerts, recordings, and writings, and currently based at NEC as a visiting professor, joined the orchestra (reduced to classical size) for Beethoven’s Fourth and most intimately cherished Piano Concerto, in G Major, op. 58. This was a loving performance as well as a deeply thoughtful one, perfectly controlled, energetically in the toccata-like first movement but especially in the slow movement, where he produced the most eloquent imaginable pianissimo for Orpheus’s farewell. The rondo finale began just as quietly, but with a real Vivace. (How many recognize the harmonic succession of the opening piano measures, beginning on the subdominant C, as closely similar to the rondo movement in Beethoven’s own Cello Sonata, op. 5, no. 2? And in the concerto, the C bass is accompanied by a solo cello — not the cello section, but a single instrument. This is Beethoven with a flashback to his own youth in Bonn.) The Presto final measures found the orchestral balance a bit raucous, but this pastoral piece is entitled to its rowdy moments. For an encore, Biss played another G major piece, no. 1 of Beethoven’s Six Bagatelles, op. 126, a brief but concentrated example of the innig late style — two minutes of the empyrean, two hands close together the beginning, and in wide-apart registers at the end.
Rachmaninoff’s Second (and largest) Symphony, op. 27, from 1906-07, summarizes all the exaggerated weaknesses that one can find in his style — and there are many, perhaps most, who would say they aren’t flaws but essential ingredients: thickness of overdeveloped texture beyond Richard Strauss, narrative length beyond Brucknerian, harmonic sweetness from Tchaikovsky and Liszt carried too far. And yet, and yet — this huge, ultra-romantic symphony is really wonderful, even splendid. It takes a lot of getting used to, but the eventual familiarity is more than worth the effort. I listened during the preceding afternoon to a quite good recording of the complete version; but the flowing performance by the totally capable, unflagging, intelligent Boston Phil, under Zander, was not only superb, it was also only possible live in Symphony Hall.
One noticed first of all the excellent athleticism of the full string section, which was required to shoulder — this is another weakness — way too much of the main melodic material in the symphony. It didn’t faze them for a moment. Likewise the heavy brass, seemingly echoing the funereal chorale texture in the Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique but full of cavernous foreboding here, with penetrating fortissimo when needed but never too much (I have more than once scolded Andris Nelsons’s brass in these pages for this). And there was some exquisitely expressive solo wind playing: English horn (Andrew van der Paardt) and clarinet (Rane Moore) especially.
The first movement begins with a long slow introduction, and a varied Russian-sixth harmony, combining E minor and G major triads, was pronounced in the first measures. (I have written about this nationalist phenomenon HERE.) The Allegro moderato that follows is full of surging melody alternating with G major warmth, with a repeated Exposition (Zander did omit the repeat), and a stormy Development full of huge orchestral climaxes; the Recapitulation then begins with the Second Theme, mercifully enough but with good formal logic. The Scherzo movement, Allegro molto in alla breve meter, is metallically brilliant, with the A minor triad richly stated with open A and E strings; formally it sprawls, with a slower Trio section of fidgety chromatic writing in the violins, seemingly out of place in the vivid dance of the Scherzo proper, which returns in full force (with glockenspiel added).
The slow movement, Adagio in A major, is for many the high point of the whole symphony, because of the radiantly expressive melodic lines throughout, and the complex diatonic harmony. Yet it is here that I criticize Rachmaninoff most severely; there’s an interior, ophidian counterpoint in triplets that seem texturally confusing and oppressive. I’m sure that Rachmaninoff could have written just as fully sonorous and decorated a harmony in this piece without the triplets. (Stravinsky remarked about the solo-violin triplets in Schumann’s Fourth Symphony: “faded…dinner music in a Swiss hotel.” Rachmaninoff’s triplets here are different, and less necessary.) The E major finale, with real triplets blazing in the horn, followed in quick succession. Zander, in his pre-concert lecture, had called this movement a tarantella, but that’s clearly wrong — it’s a galloping march, with a yearning D major second theme that everyone remembers, in back-and-forth wide intervals. After a short reminiscence of the third-movement theme, it hurries on to the conclusion, with hammered octaves at the end, a Rachmaninoff favorite (compare the Second and Third Concertos).
The program notes paid due attention to the most important problem with this great symphony: length, which I timed in this uncut performance (including pauses) at about one hour and five minutes. A performance tradition of long standing, until quite recently, included a large number of cuts in all four movements in the score, which Rachmaninoff authorized, though grudgingly. My own copy of the score, the cut version, is 194 pages, with nearly everyone playing most or nearly all the time. Cuts in opera and ballet are routine for every producer and listener, but to my mind they are usually devastating to anything in the concert hall. “Cutting isn’t the way to improve a work,” Arnold Schoenberg wrote to his brother-in-law Zemlinsky, who had suggested some abbreviation in Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande, a work of about the same length but even greater density than Rachmaninoff’s symphony, composed only a year or two before. “A work that has been shortened by cutting may very well give the impression of being an excessively long work (because of the exposition) that is too short in various places (where it has been cut).” So it was that my first hearing of this Rachmaninoff symphony was in 1959 in this same hall, in a guest appearance by Izler Solomon directing the BSO — and in the abbreviated version it seemed overly heavy and interminably long. (Zander’s footnote in the program booklet gives Solomon’s timing as 38 minutes.)
But I was convinced by this complete performance, as never before, that this almost insupportable symphony is a beautiful work, and I listened to its brave execution with complete attention, as never before. I would consider it anywhere as a dangerous choice for programming. But here, in a packed Symphony Hall, Ben Zander brought forth the impossible and the magnificent.