IN: Reviews

BSO Does Modern First Half

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Leonidas Kavakos and Hannu Lintu aHilary Scott photo)

The ultra-modern program may have left 20% of last night’s Symphony Hall seats unfilled, but those who came couldn’t complain. We should keep on hearing Peter Lieberson’s BSO-commissar Drala early and often; exciting, colorful, and everywhere impressive, its well-proportioned structure impresses despite its over-the-top sound and sensibility. On Thursday we witnessed the first BSO performance since 1986. One can comprehend it as well-demarcated episodes: explosions of tutti with cascades of percussion (especially wooden), interspaced with contemplative calms in partially triadic divisi strings, the whole measured by a pacing (sometimes marching) harmonic aura. The simplest pacing appears in the first few bars, where clarinets and piano, then oboes and vibraphone, partition a 12-tone set into six successive quarter-note dyads, almost like a drip figure, before being absorbed into flurries of high-register notes flung into the atmosphere like confetti, or maybe skyrockets — and the quarter-note pacing of harmony reappears at intervals throughout. At one point we heard a swelling of 13 cellos (more divided than Debussy wanted in La mer, but maybe inspired by it,), and a welter of ultra-high contrabasses, yielding eventually to just two cellos soli, for an expressive dialogue-meditation. At other times Lieberson reduced the melodic lines to a spare two-part counterpoint in strings, becoming almost a tonal conversation. All of this was aurally transfixing, even in the wildest abandon of orchestra fff, with a heavy, massively repeated chord over a C-sharp bass, near the end (rather like the one in Varèse’s Amériques); suddenly it was over, even when one wanted more. What it all had to do with Peter Lieberson’s deeply felt Tibetan Buddhism might be discernible from the score, but it couldn’t concern me nearly as much as the brilliant sound of this really everywhere-interesting music. Hannu Lintu conducted with acute attentiveness and restraint, and the orchestra gratefully responded.

Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, his last composition in an oeuvre of only about a dozen major works, is also his best-known ever since its premier in 1936. One can attribute this measure of success to the well-known circumstances of its composition and earliest performances, but also to the temper of the times, and to the world-weariness that shines through it; its sadness transfers the “Memory of an Angel” to the composer’s own death that followed less than half a year after the concerto’s completion. The specifically tonal structuring of the 12-tone set has made its way even into today’s music-appreciation texts. Michael Steinberg excellently accounts this in his handout essay, to which I would also add a recent item even though I haven’t finished reading it: “Manon’s World: A Hauntology of a Daughter in the Triangle of Alma Mahler, Walter Gropius, and Franz Werfel,” by James Reidel (2021). Last night’s performance of the Violin Concerto, with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist, sounded straightforward and sonorous, though possibly under-rehearsed; Kavakos himself came across as thoroughly engaged. As far as I could tell, he made use of Douglas Jarman’s new carefully corrected score which forms part of the Alban Berg Sämtliche Werke. (I should note here that the Kritischer Bericht for this score, 427 pages long and just published, is planned to be the last volume of commentary from the Alban Berg Foundation before the unfinished Complete Works folds its tent.). The final Adagio, including the Bach chorale “Es ist genug,” made a deeply moving impression, with the violins and violas unobtrusively joining the solo violin in a crescendo to the climax at m. 186 (chorale melody inverted) and then subsiding just as unobtrusively, leaving the solo to finish on a high G above a B-flat major triad — a perfectly tonal synthesis in a perfectly 12-tone work. Kavakos added an absorbing encore, the Sarabande (with Double) from Bach’s unaccompanied Partita in B Minor.

After the intermission we heard Schumann’s Fourth Symphony in its revised (1851) version, with a good demonstration of why this most problematic and formally least successful of his four still enjoys the status as his most widely loved. (I have never heard or studied the first version of 1841.) Its problems are not merely orchestral — such as too much doubling, with everyone playing all the time — but with the excess of cyclicality; too much thematic material repeats too often, developing and redeveloping as it goes. Granted that Schumann wanted to expand the symphonic horizons he had already glimpsed in Beethoven, neither necessarily bigger nor necessarily better, and in the Second Symphony he succeeded in this regard. [See my analysis HERE]. But in the Fourth Symphony he stumbles over his own formally tangled feet. How many times can we stand to hear the violin triplets, solo in the Romanze second movement; full first violins in the Scherzo, that (as Stravinsky snarked) are “too faded even for the dinner music in a Swiss hotel”? (I counted ten.) Nevertheless, there are golden moments in this symphony — the solo cello doubled with oboe in the Romanze; the aerial third theme in the first movement (which never gets to a Recapitulation); the finely-pinched G-sharp between two A’s (m. 25 of the Romanze), and these go far towards offsetting the martial bombast of the finale.

Hannu Lintu showed his skill as a conductor most strikingly in his able control of Drala and his carefully reserved support in the Violin Concerto. He has a commanding podium presence: tall and authoritative, like Furtwängler, and confident, with an extra-large breezy beat very much like Carlos Kleiber’s, with long arms and even long fingers. He watches his players; yet I wasn’t always sure, in the Schumann, that they were always following him, because there were many moments of doubtful cadential togetherness. But he exercises a hesitant but very effective rubato, and controls dynamics expertly. I sensed that Lintu’s long baton was less important than his hands for securing the beat, which much of the time I couldn’t follow easily behind his busy brachial choreography. He danced around especially in the Schumann finale, and I worried about the security of the podium where the tempi got way too fast, even in the Presto. Maybe not everyone will agree with this; the Schumann certainly got a rousing performance.

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 »

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

  1. Thursday’s BSO concert was singularly satisfactory. Hannu Lintu’s balletic athleticism brought out the best from the orchestra and was engaging to observe: at one point he was cuing the violins by waggling his head from side to side!
    Lieberson’s Drala was enjoyable albeit confusing. Rumbustious eruptions of exuberant sound floating past in an otherwise calm sea. Perhaps a second hearing would reveal a more coherent whole.
    Leonidas Kavakos, Lintu and the BSO were simply superb in the Berg Violin Concerto and Kavakos’ exquisite encore of the Bach Saraband was played to a rapturously silent audience.
    While Schumann’s 4th Symphony may have its technical deficiencies, it remains an audience pleaser and such it was Thursday, led at a brisk pace by Lintu, with the movements almost attacca.
    Am I alone when I listen to the second movement Romanze in hearing the theme of Oyfn Pripetchek? Was Mark Warshawsky influenced by Schumann’s theme? Were they both influenced by a folk tune? Over the years I’ve been unsuccessful in finding any commentary or discussion about their remarkable similarity.

    Comment by David Derow — November 11, 2023 at 1:27 pm

  2. Thank you, David Derow, for your fascinating and perceptive comment. A wonderful music critic we both know said he grew up with that song, very well known…You inspire me to look it up

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — November 11, 2023 at 4:41 pm

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