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Two Comfortable Hours with the BSO


Anne Sophie Mutter and Andris Nelsons (Hilary Scott photo)

It’s not hard to spot the theme in this week’s BSO program. Jean Sibelius’s 1913 dramatic tone poem Luonnotar, with South African soprano Golda Schultz. Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, being done for the first time under music director Andris Nelsons. The American premiere of Thomas Adès’s Air (Homage to Sibelius) for violin and orchestra, a BSO co-commission written for Anne-Sophie Mutter. Clear so far. But then, rounding out the bill, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Well, Air runs a modest 15 minutes, and you’d want something else for Mutter to play. She has the Sibelius Violin Concerto in her repertoire, but substituting that half-hour piece for the Mozart would have run the evening up toward 90 minutes of music. Perhaps, too, not everyone wants to sit through a Sibelius-themed evening. The Mozart made for a palate cleanser following Luonnotar, and Thursday’s concert clocked in at a comfortable two hours.

Sibelius drew the text for Luonnotar from the first runo of the Kalevala, the 19th-century compilation of Finnish oral folklore and mythology. Luonnotar translates to “Daughter of the Ether,” and the Kalevala verses Sibelius chose tell how, forlorn, she descended from the sky to the ocean and lived there for 700 years, becoming mother to the waters. A common goldeneye came by looking for a place to nest, whereupon Luonnotar lifted her knee; the goldeneye set her nest there and laid her eggs. When Luonnotar, feeling the heat from the nest, twitched her knee, the eggs fell into the ocean, but instead of mixing with the water, their components become the Earth and the heavens and the sun and moon and stars. It’s the beginning of the Finnish creation myth.

Sibelius himself created Luonnotar for the celebrated Finnish soprano Aino Ackté, and he didn’t make it easy for her. Although the Kalevala lines, as spoken, proceed in trochaic tetrameter, the vocal line of Luonnotar, perhaps harking back to a time when there was no meter, spans heaven and earth, calling for a very high tessitura, a very wide range, and demanding leaps. At one point, Sibelius paints the gusts of wind and wave with harp and timpani; at another, fluttering winds announce the arrival of the goldeneye. For the most part, however, the score alternates between nervously oscillating strings and a preternatural calm. It reaches its anguished climax in the goldeneye’s lament that the sea is no place for a nest. The last three stanzas, in which the nesting knee is found, the eggs are laid, and creation begins, are oddly calm; the final measures of heavenly starlight twinkle uneasily.

The BSO didn’t program Luonnotar till 2002, when Karita Matilla sang it with Osmo Vänskä, but Symphony Hall audiences got to hear Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops do it back in 1957, with Sylvia Aarnio as soloist. On Thursday, Schultz, making her BSO debut, was everything you could want. She soared into the stratosphere with no hint of shrillness, and without sacrificing the text. Every consonant and vowel was clearly articulated, and she never lost the thread, even in a difficult line like “Parempi olisi ollut,” which moves so slowly it all but stands still. There was no want of anguish in her appeal to the high god Ukko, she incanted the final stanzas with the authority of a Kalevala recitation, and if Finnish sopranos like Taru Valjakka and Soile Isokoski have conveyed any nuances she didn’t, put that down to their being native speakers who were making studio recordings and not having to fill Symphony Hall. Nelsons’s accompaniment augured well for the symphony at the end of the evening: crisp, alert, atmospheric, muted to give Schultz breathing space, that much more effective in the volcanic eruption of the goldeneye’s envisioned storm. Schultz bounded back on stage for her bow, put a hand to her heart, thanked the orchestra, waved to the audience, and bounded back off. Ten minutes in was hardly an appropriate time for an encore, but I wouldn’t have been sorry to hear one from her.       

There was a time when Mozart was thought to have written his B-flat-major violin concerto in 1775. Scholars now think he may have at least started the piece in 1773. It’s a mature work for a 17-year-old, even if not quite up to the standard of Bizet’s Symphony in C or Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Allegro moderato is a high-spirited romp in semiquavers, with an aria-like solo part. The 3/4 Adagio in E-flat finds the violin singing like a nightingale over burbling strings; then the 2/4 Presto is more high-spirited still.

The BSO’s most recent performances of the Mozart concerto were in 2011, with Mutter as soloist and conducting a pared-down ensemble, 20 strings, first and second violins seated antiphonally, plus two oboes and two horns. This time out, Nelsons had 30 strings, in the usual modern seating arrangement. Mutter’s reading was of a piece with her 2005 Deutsche Grammophon recording and her 2011 appearance: intense and high-powered in the outer movements, wistfully romantic in the Adagio. She did take time to underline the darkness that creeps into the brief development of the Allegro moderato, and in her three cadenzas, all by Hans Sitt, she was thoughtful as well as virtuosic. But I wonder whether a more genial, gracious approach mightn’t be better suited to this early Mozart concerto. Mutter was at her best in the bittersweet pastoral of the Adagio, a nightingale worthy of the heartsore Keats. Nelsons gave her the extroverted support her interpretation called for.    

Adès’s fondness for Sibelius is well established; Robert Kirzinger’s program note points out that, in his BSO guest-conducting appearances, he’s “led the music of Sibelius more frequently than any composer other than himself.” (He in fact led the BSO’s only previous Symphony Hall presentation of Luonnotar, with Dawn Upshaw in 2012.) Air (Homage to Sibelius) premiered at the Lucerne Festival last August, with Adès on the podium and Mutter as soloist. The orchestration calls for no brass other than a pair of horns, and the percussion array is modest: handbells, tuned gongs, marimba, tam-tam, tambourine, large wood chimes, bass drum. The composer calls the piece “actually an enormous canon or a series of canons at the 10th. They rise and at the same time descend, so that with so many modulations, you end up arriving again at the point where you started, but transformed into something else. Anne-Sophie’s part is the freest agent within this mix.”    

That’s a good description of what I heard Thursday. Air (think also “Aria” and perhaps Shakespeare’s Ariel) is 15 minutes of slow spirals and concentric circles; Adès, who recently completed a three-act ballet score Dante based on the Commedia, surely had the Paradiso in mind. Mutter floated high above the orchestra, like a soul just freed from the body and trying to adjust to its new surroundings. The orchestra at first sounded like a big glass harmonica, with a wood block thrown in here and there. Mostly it was those canons rising and falling in a steady 4/4, almost a threnody, with bits of harp and marimba. After nine minutes Mutter got a brief break; when she resumed, there were hints of dissonance. A percussion intrusion at the 11-minute mark led nowhere; after another break, Mutter ascended until she was barely audible and the piece ended on a long held note, as if a destination had been reached, or a transformation achieved.

As David Weininger pointed out in his Boston Globe feature, Air doesn’t recall the sound of any Sibelius work, not even his Violin Concerto. But the suggestions of flying, escaping, emerging consciousness did anticipate the symphony we were about to hear. Mutter played with the same rapt attention she gave the Adagio of the Mozart; her tone was ethereal, almost wispy, but perhaps that was Adès’s intent. Just before leaving the stage for the last time, she took the score from Nelsons’s stand and held it up for the audience to applaud, a nice touch.     

Soprano Golda Schultz (Hilary Scott photo)

Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony has an unusually complicated history. He composed it in 1914 and 1915 as a four-movement work, and he conducted the premiere with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra on December 8, 1915, his 50th birthday. By January 1916, however, he had become dissatisfied with the piece, and a second version premiered on his 51st birthday. Eventually that version was superseded, and the Fifth as we now know it debuted in November 1919, Sibelius again leading the Helsinki Philharmonic. No complete score for the 1916 version exists; the 1915 original, as recorded by Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, sounds murky and conflicted, at times seeming to look back to the Fourth Symphony. There’s general agreement that the 1919 version is by far the best. Sibelius combined the first two movements from 1915 into an ingenious and original allegro-scherzo and edited the final movement, 679 bars in 1915 and 702 in 1916, down to 482.

The inspiration for the Fifth seems to have been the composer’s sighting, in April 1915, of 16 swans that circled over him for a long time and “disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming, silver ribbon.” Sibelius was already working on the symphony by then, but it’s clear he attached his vision to the swinging theme of the finale, which he called the Swan Hymn. He was home at Ainola at the time, surrounded by the forests of Järvenpää and overlooking Lake Tuusula, and the Finnish forest spirit, Tapio, hovers over the Fifth, as it does over the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies and Sibelius’s last major work, Tapiola (“Tapio’s Realm”).

The initial rising E-flat horn call (not present in the 1915 version), like the rising of the sun, prompts an exchange of cheerful birdsong in the winds and then a general bustling in the strings. There’s a gracious lilt to the 12/8 meter, as if the woodland creatures were looking to learn the minuet; instead a squabble breaks out in the winds and the strings intervene. By this point in his composing career Sibelius has dispensed with ordinary sonata form. This opening thematic group is revisited under a cloudier sky, a lone bassoon calls; then the sun breaks through and Sibelius magically transitions into the Allegro moderato. The flutes gambol, the strings gossip, the tempo imperceptibly increases, the trumpets take up the opening horn call. A ferocious fff timpani initiates the Presto coda, which manages to fly, march, and dance all at the same time.

The 3/2 Andante mosso, in G major, is built on a five-note theme that, initially plucked in the strings, crosses the bar lines. The woodland creatures actually are dancing now, in simple homage to Tapio; the music is agitated one moment and sorrowful the next. The Allegro molto finale, back in E-flat, has ostinato strings rushing this way and that until the Swan Hymn breaks out in the horns over a triumphant descant in the winds. After the typically Sibelian darker reprise, the Swan Hymn seems to come to a standstill and evolve into a higher form of music. The chords of the closing six bars are unique, each beat of music surrounded by multiple beats of space. Sibelius asserted that after he finally put down his pen, “12 white swans settled down on the lake, and then circled the house three times before flying away.”

The BSO’s musical directors have not embraced the Fifth. The orchestra had given it 118 performances going into Thursday’s concert, but 48 of those were led by Sibelius champion Serge Koussevitzky. Pierre Monteux conducted one flight of performances in 1922, Erich Leinsdorf one in 1966, James Levine one in 2005. Charles Munch and Seiji Ozawa didn’t do it at all. Nelsons led a Sibelius Second in November 2014, his first season with the BSO (the live performance was subsequently released on BSO classics), but the only Sibelius he’s programmed since has been the Violin Concerto. The BSO hasn’t played the Fifth in Symphony Hall since Susanna Mälkki’s fine performances in February 2011.

Sibelius was famously dissatisfied with performances of his works, and eventually he went so far as to provide metronome marks. Those he created for the Fifth are, in the first two movements at least, faster than the current norm; you have to go back to the likes of Robert Kajanus and Tauno Hannikainen to hear what he probably intended. Nelsons’s tempos were close enough, however — certainly he was never as expansive as Colin Davis in the BSO’s 1975 recording. Thursday got off to a good start as glowing horns and rustic, characterful winds (with some authentically Sibelian honking) greeted the dawn. Nelsons caught Sibelius’s shifting light, the way the music, still and still moving, is static one second and surges the next. The skies darkened second time around, and then he created a hushed backdrop for Richard Svoboda’s haunting bassoon solo. The solarity of the trumpets at the climax was so intense, you hardly noticed the scherzo section had started. This had everything: balance, pacing, a vibrant trumpet solo from Thomas Rolfs. A timpani flam introduces the Presto coda; unlike many conductors and timpanists, Nelsons and Timothy Genis observed Sibelius’s fff marking. Genis also observed the instruction to play marcatissimo in the Piú presto final bars; that propelled the movement to its conclusion, though the piú ff strings didn’t quite sing out.

Sibelius marked the second movement Andante mosso, quasi allegretto and gave it a metronome mark of 80, which would work out to about eight minutes. Mälkki in 2011 took 10 and made that work. Nelsons, closer to eight, kept the dance pulse crisp and light, which is the important thing in a movement that functions as an intermezzo. Big but not outsized dynamics characterized the moments of nervous energy, when the wind freshens; the moments of uneasy reflection, as if the animals had become aware of their mortality, didn’t sag. The reading was affectionate but never sentimental.

The whooshing strings that open the Allegro molto finale suggest Kalevala hero Lemminkäinen racing home like a bat out of hell from the underworld of Tuonela. Shortly the swans fly into view, at which point some conductors slow and some speed up. Nelsons, at what seemed the same tempo, flowed imperceptibly from anticipation into exultation, with a hint of weariness in the descant. If he didn’t have quite the organic push-pull here of Paavo Berglund (whom Sibelius reportedly told to “swim in the gravy”), he was still idiomatic and unselfconscious in building slowly, inexorably to the final Swan Hymn, where the brass were, again, heroically clarion. He gave those big closing spaces full measure without losing the line; Genis’s accentuation of the concluding grace notes put the stamp on a memorable evening.

Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 45 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.


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

  1. Seems odd to mention the seeming lack of enthusiasm among the BSO’s music directors for the 5th Symphony without also mentioning the significant BSO history of Sibelius performances under frequent guest conductor Colin Davis whose recording of the work with the BSO is still considered by many to be the benchmark for the work.

    Comment by Jim M — April 21, 2023 at 6:10 pm

  2. Jeffrey at the end of your first paragraph you wrote that “Thursday’s concert clocked in at a comfortable two hours.” This led to the heading “Two Comfortable Hours with the BSO.” The concert was closer to one hour than two, which you yourself confirmed only two sentences earlier. You wrote that if Mutter had substituted the Sibelius violin concerto for the Mozart, that would have run the evening up towards 90 minutes of music. Based on the length times listed by the Boston Symphony itself for the 4 works (9 minutes, 13 minutes, 21 minutes and 32 minutes), the music played added up to about 75 minutes. People sometimes round off numbers (for example, saying that a concert of 1 hour and 24 minutes was about an hour and a half), but this was nowhere near two hours.

    Comment by Bennett — April 22, 2023 at 6:23 pm

  3. My bad at headline writing.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 22, 2023 at 6:46 pm

  4. Adding in the customarily delayed start, the time between pieces, intermission, and applause, we were in the hall for close to two hours.

    It was time well spent.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 22, 2023 at 7:38 pm

  5. Maybe it’s me, but the Ades work seemed less a tribute to Sibelius than to Arvo Part. It actually nominally sounded like an Arvo Part work – less the spirituality. I found Mutter’s playing in it to be wonderful and without the excessive vibrato which to my ears made here Mozart much less enjoyable. In the Mozart her vibrato was so wide that she came across consistently flat. Otherwise it was a wonderful concert, and I thought Nelsons did a fabulous job with the Sibelius 5th. Someone once said you can tell the instrumental background of a conductor by listening to the balance of the orchestra. A few weeks ago in the Schumann 2nd symphony we heard a decided string balance from Earl Lee (a cellist). In the Sibelius there was no mistaking what Nelsons’ background was, and the brass soared–but maybe just a little too much by the end. But it was still a joy to hear.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — April 23, 2023 at 6:36 am

  6. Admirable piece. I read it with pleasure, noting especially the elegance of the prose, the aptness of the metaphors (without the overly fanciful ideas so often found in reviews these days), and the accuracy of the information (concert length notwithstanding).

    Comment by Doug Briscoe — April 23, 2023 at 4:29 pm

  7. I wholeheartedly agree with Joe Whipple’s comment. It was time well spent and it was a really enjoyable concert performed by a world class musician and a world class orchestra. Who cares at all about the timing. Thankfully, there were no encores !!!

    Comment by David M Grahling — April 24, 2023 at 10:00 am

  8. Somewhat mystified by the confusion over my first paragraph. The program as performed provided 75–80 minutes of music. Substituting the Sibelius Violin Concerto for the Mozart would have bumped that up to 85–90. As it was, even with just the 75–80 minutes of music and no encores, Thursday’s concert ended at 9:30, bang on two hours. The usual late start, lots of applause from an audience hoping for encores, intermission. In any case, my “comfortable” referred to the fact that the concert didn’t run over two hours. In no way did I mean to suggest that the musicmaking was merely comfortable. One thing about Ms. Schultz’s performance that I omitted to mention is that she left her score on her music stand. I was mostly looking at the text while she sang, but my impression was that she was singing to the audience, having largely memorized both words and music.

    Comment by Jeffrey Gantz — April 24, 2023 at 2:06 pm

  9. In this industry, direction competition is to be avoided, as a marketing principle.
    Batiashvili just performed Sibelius VC not too long ago, even tho not in this season.
    One may still remember after Mutter’s Dvorak VC years, Batiashvili played/toured with the same VC, notably (in a sense of media not music) with Rattle, drawing comparisons inevitably.
    So Sibelius VC would not be a good option. And as Mogulmeister and reporter rightly pointed out, the Sibelius theme was actually broken up by Ades work. I did not sense much Sibelius there.

    Other than the fact that Mozart’s early VCs are not a rare scene in concert halls, I wonder if the selection of M 1st VC has sth to do with the solo entry. In both 1st VC slow movement and Air, the solo violin emerges out of the tender sound waves of the accompanying strings. In some way, there are similarities. But only someone close to Mutter could tell if this is just speculation or insight. However, that was not done gracefully enough in Mozart, orchestra not subtle enough. The performance 10 years ago without conductor was better.

    I went there on Thursday and it sounded like they were rehearing Sibelius 5 on stage. The 1st movement was just pieces. Heard some ugly moments from the flute early. But I could not see the player to find out if it was the one had wage settlement. I had this ‘money’ image distraction for quite a while, could not concentrate on music, but I knew the S5 was not coherent.

    Comment by Thorsten — April 26, 2023 at 10:29 am

  10. Wow! An extremely erudite and comprehensive review. Bravo! I just heard this program at Carnegie Hall (it was exactly 2 hours!). It was a terrific program and I concur with your sentiments and description of what actually went on during the concert (not often found in reviews in other places). This was a welcome second concert after the prior evening’s flaccid and downright boring Rachmaninoff #2 – which is DOA when done too slowly – as it was.

    Comment by John Kelly — April 26, 2023 at 10:48 am

  11. Thorsten, Elizabeth Rowe is on sabbatical leave this season.

    Comment by John J Crimlisk — April 27, 2023 at 11:56 am

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