IN: Reviews

Great Night from BPO


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.

Benjamin Zander and Jonathan Biss (Hilary Scott photo)

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.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I am virtually a stranger to Boston, coming from far-away New York City, and having visited this historic metropolis only a very few times. Naturally, Boston’s Symphony Hall has a legendary status for its rich history and phenomenal acoustics. But the joy of hearing a fine orchestra in such a space is unique and deeply inspiring.
    The Boston Philharmonic is an institution unlike any other that I’ve encountered. Uniquely humane, it includes players with varying amounts of experience. What binds them together, of course, is the inspiring leadership of Benjamin Zander, whose exceptional wisdom, humanity, insight and boundless energy create a devotion and commitment on the part of his players that are readily evident to the audience. The solos from the clarinet, the concertmistress, the English Horn, the French Horn, oboe and flute were luscious in sound and highly expressive. Which is not to say that section work is any less expert, on that level too, the orchestra far exceeds the usual standard of a group that plays only a handful of concerts per year. In fact, there is no audible way to distinguish that the orchestra is not comprised entirely of fully professional experienced orchestra players.
    The evening began, as I believe is customary for this group, with a talk from the Maestro. He provided historical context and outlined the structure of the works we were about to hear. Peppering his eloquence with charming anecdotes and even some perfectly timed jokes, he gave the audience a foretaste of the concert program expertly calculated to enhance a sense of involvement and whet their appetites for the musical banquet to follow. His unique style of presentation is a great enhancement to the proceedings for those fortunate enough to be able to come a bit early.
    The Beethoven G major Concerto is a fascinating way to begin an orchestra concert. Out of the hushed, expectant silence the piano enters all alone instead of the orchestra, stating the main material of the movement in a tender but ambiguous manner, which is followed by a tender B major non-sequitur from the orchestra to start the now slightly delayed introduction, through which the pianist waits to make his expected entrance several minutes later.
    The playing of Mr. Biss was immaculately scrupulous and unusually delicate. Trills particularly were executed perfectly and the abundant passagework was extremely rapid when speed was called for and always elegantly shaped. Nothing was out of place and a sincere love of the music as well as a keen intellect was everywhere evident. It seems churlish to introduce any quibbles at all about such a fine and affectionate performance of this exceedingly lovely masterpiece, but if pressed, I might venture that the tempo of the finale seemed a speck fast, and the orchestra’s loud passages were a little more vigorous than the soloist’s. The sound of the piano was delicate and restrained throughout, where some interpreters find occasion for greater contrast. Mr. Biss gave us the first Bagatelle of Beethoven’s Op. 126 as an encore, imbuing it with the same delicacy and grace that he had given the much larger concerto.
    The Rachmaninov Second Symphony is by now quite a well-known work, but in my view it deserves to be known even more widely for the titanic late romantic and utterly fascinating masterpiece that it is. It’s exceedingly strenuous for the orchestra, with thick textures and enormous climaxes in abundance. It wears its heart on its sleeve, speaking of love, loss, heartbreak and wild joyful abandon in the most direct and moving fashion. Every section of the orchestra fulfilled its mission with love and virtuosity – solo woodwinds and horn, concertmistress, percussion – everyone is called upon for extreme concentration and luscious sound and everyone delivered nobly. Maestro Zander is famous for his endless energy, among other things, and for a veteran with many years on the podium under his belt, this performance was a rare feat of concentration and vigor. Equally important is the seriousness with which he worked with Rachmaninov’s lavish brand of rubato, not always easy for non-Russians to capture. The symphony has one of the most rousing conclusions, and the BPO sped to a breathtaking conclusion with perfect control. The audience was totally attuned to what they had heard and leapt cheering to their feet.
    There remain three more concerts of the Boston Philharmonic this season, and three of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. This group is well worth your support and will give you hours of exciting music. You have a treasure here in Symphony Hall which most cities can’t equal. I know that it’s very tempting to think that the recordings we all enjoy are a satisfactory musical experience. They certainly are that – but if you haven’t heard a fine orchestra like this one live in a great acoustic recently, you truly might want to give it a try. If you open your ears and your heart it’s a thrilling experience like no other.

    Comment by Jeff Goldberg — October 24, 2022 at 11:07 am

  2. Very good reviews. A delight to read. Zander is a real treasure!

    Comment by Dave Gordon — October 29, 2022 at 8:10 pm

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