Last week saw the Boston Symphony Orchestra debuts of German conductor Joana Mallwitz and Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya, two gifted young musicians, as two much-beloved staples of the repertoire combined with a piece lesser known but still within the mainstream orchestral literature. I found it heartening to see a near-full Symphony Hall on Saturday night with a strikingly large proportion of young adults.
The Dances of Galánta, by Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), evoke the Gypsy dances, going back to the 18th century, the composer heard during the seven years of his childhood spent in the small town of Galánta, Hungary. This music, known as “recruiting dances”, was intended to arouse the enthusiasm of listeners and motivate the young men among them to enlist. Kodály follows the traditional form of these dances, alternating slow and thoughtful passages—with numerous improvisatory solos—with lively dances. The through-composed single movement of about 15 minutes features eleven different tempo indications. Mallwitz displayed an affinity for Kodály’s richly colorful and creatively scored music. Her crisp and clear conducting was undoubtedly helpful to the players in the many transitions as well as sudden shifts of tempo. Alternatively, in the quasi-improvised solos she refrained from beating time to allow each solo instrumentalist maximum freedom. An especially striking effect came near the end as the ensemble built almost to a climax before abruptly breaking off. Following a suspenseful pause, ethereal strings supported reflective solos by flute, oboe, and clarinet; then, equally suddenly, the full orchestra plunged back into the frenzied material to complete the climax and the piece. Based on the extended applause, I expect these “recruiting dances,” as led by Mallwitz, recruited new admirers for Kodály’s music.
Michael Steinberg’s essay reminded us that Boston was the site of the 1875 world premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, surely among the half-dozen most popular piano concertos ever written. On that occasion, six years before the founding of the BSO, the pianist was the German Hans von Bülow, accompanied by Benjamin Johnson Lang conducting his orchestra at the Boston Music Hall. [Lang presided as pianist and conductor over an astonishing number of Boston and New World premieres. An illustrative list is HERE] The soloist on Saturday, making her BSO debut as well, was Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya. Though this performance was comfortably inside the mainstream of interpretations, one did hear personal touches, e.g., the opening grand dialogue of huge piano chords and big string tune had a little more dynamic variety than one often encounters. Also, in the hopping theme of the first movement’s Allegro spirito Vinnitskaya seemed to place a subtle accent on the first of each pair of notes, rather than the second, as is more typically heard; the booklet mentioned that this tune is a song sung by blind beggars in the Ukraine, possibly explaining why the pianist chose to “dislocate” the rhythm here. In the subsequent gentle theme, the muted strings caressed our ears with velvety sounds, with a luminous duet between solo flute and horn soon added to them, with delicate piano embroidery underneath. The long piano cadenza was another highlight, particularly the trio-like section, with the “velvet” theme high in the piano’s treble, arpeggios below, and a trill in the middle. Vinnitskaya was a model of delicacy and evenness in this subtly difficult passage. Elizabeth Rowe’s intimate playing of the solo flute melody at the start of the slow movement drew us in; when the pianist took over the theme, she projected it rather more but continued the flutist’s tenderness. In this movement’s central “scherzo” (marked Prestissimo) the soloist dazzingly unleashed quicksilver brilliance. The recapitulation of the opening theme was the more moving, coming after the brief scherzo’s coruscating display. The final movement commenced with chordal accents exchanged between piano and orchestra. The soloist’s clear and very impressive fingerwork alternated satisfyingly with her romantic washes of sound in the more lyrical passages. Her spectacular execution of the famous double octaves in the cadenza, as well as the ascending interlocked octaves at the end, took one’s breath away. After a prolonged standing ovation, Vinnitskaya granted us one encore, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Étude-Tableau in E-flat minor, Op. 39 No. 5. As befit a “picture-étude”, the pianist painted with vivid colors while creditably guiding us through the work’s dense texture and harmonies and handling its great technical demands with assurance. After mostly forte dynamics in the darkly melancholic key of E-flat minor for most of the piece, her transition to the major and simplification of texture nearing the gentle ending moved me deeply.
Franz Schubert’s Symphony in C Major, D. 944, bears the appellation “The Great” to distinguish it from an earlier, smaller symphony in C major but likely also because the later piece is his greatest achievement in symphonic writing whose immense proportions led Robert Schumann later to coin the phrase “heavenly length.” Mallwitz and the orchestra responded to Schubert’s profusion of themes with a variety of colors and articulations. The first movement’s noble Andante horn theme in the introduction contrasted vividly with the energetic dotted-rhythm Allegro theme alternating with repeated triplets that likely influenced Mendelssohn in his Italian Symphony. When conductors opt to take the exposition repeat of this movement, its length often enough becomes something other than “heavenly” but Mallwitz, keeping textures light when possible and maintaining momentum, held the audience interested and engaged throughout. The second movement, Andante con moto in A minor, brought a mood of bittersweet nostalgia thanks to the discreet but expressive oboe solo. It also features many fortissimo interruptions by the massed strings: these gave us momentary surprises but did not interrupt the march-like progress of the movement. At the end of the development, Mallwitz and the BSO built up to a dramatic diminished seventh chord; following a moment of silence the cellos played a haunting reminiscence of the opening oboe theme. Following the recapitulation, the conductor again made powerful use of sudden dynamic contrasts before settling into the melancholy conclusion. The third movement scherzo (Allegro vivace) is something of a display piece for the string section which may explain why Mallwitz gave in to temptation and chose a tempo that was slightly too fast for the strings to articulate the opening figure, the basis for the whole movement, with ideal crispness and clarity. The scherzo’s outer sections and central trio often had a folk-dance charm (perhaps Dvořák was another later composer who knew and loved this symphony?) though this would not have been sacrificed at a slightly more moderate tempo, and razor-sharp ensemble at a still fast tempo would have generated excitement on its own. The final movement (also marked Allegro vivace) began at similarly high speed: I initially held my breath, but here the string display consists of very long chains of triplets which lend themselves better to a very fast tempo than the scherzo’s opening figure. This movement, coming at the end of a symphony of fifty-plus minutes, is notorious among string players for its physical demands, but, nothing daunted, the BSO strings and the rest of the orchestra gave us an exhilarating display of virtuosity, maintaining clarity of ensemble throughout. Aesthetically, too, this account pleased the ear. Without slowing the tempo, Mallwitz imparted a refreshing sense of relaxation in the extended diminuendo before the recapitulation burst in. In keeping with the symphony’s great proportions, the recapitulation section is fully as long as the exposition and is followed by a fairly lengthy coda, but between Mallwitz’s varied dynamics and the orchestra’s enthusiastic and brilliant playing, the performance compelled attention and the length of the work never felt excessive. The final part of the coda—described only slightly hyperbolically in the Jan Swafford’s notes as “six pages of pure C major”—built to a splendid, resounding conclusion.
Clearly Andris Nelsons emphasizes presenting the music of women and members of ethnic minorities as performers and composers as a means to bring new audiences to Symphony Hall. Saturday’s concert will only help further this goal. The biographies of Joana Mallwitz and Anna Vinnitskaya made clear that they are much in demand with the top orchestras of Europe, and I hope they will both soon become regular visitors on this side of the pond.