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The BPYO Prepares for Europe

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Love was in the air with the two works Benjamin Zander chose for the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in Friday’s season-ender at Symphony Hall. Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto is laced with affectionate messages to his wife, Clara. And Gustav Mahler is said to have written the Adagietto of his Fifth Symphony as a love letter to his future wife, Alma Schindler. For his Schumann soloist, Zander had 25-year-old Zlatomir Fung, who in 2019 became the youngest cellist ever to win first prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition. Fung’s Schumann confirmed the judges’ opinion. And if the Mahler was a bit of a work in progress, it rewarded all the same.

Schumann composed his Cello Concerto in Düsseldorf over a two-week period in 1850, just before starting work on his Third Symphony (Rhenish) and revising his Fourth. He did some revising of the concerto in 1854, but he never heard the work performed; it made its debut in 1860, four years after his death. The three movements are continuous (Schumann detested applause in the middle of a work). After 11 minutes or so you might detect the beginning of the Langsam in the way the pizzicato violin and viola triplets suggest 12/8 even though the time signature remains 4/4. No problem locating the beginning of the Sehr lebhaft: a brief cello transition marked Schneller leads into an orchestral tutti with the same kind of forceful triple chords that feature in the Fourth Symphony.

There are parallels with Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Both works start in A minor and finish in A major; both have intermezzo-like five-minute slow movements; both slip in coded messages to Clara. The Piano Concerto, however, had Clara to champion it. The Cello Concerto didn’t have an easy time establishing itself in the repertoire. Schumann actually titled the work “Concertstück für Violoncell mit Begleitung des Orchesters” — “Concert Piece for Violoncello with Orchestra Accompaniment,” suggesting something more intimate and personal than a virtuoso concerto. That fit with the size of the string sections he wrote for — 31 in Leipzig — and the intimate sound of his brass and winds. Modern ensembles, with their inflated string sections and louder, brighter brass and winds, can make the composer seem seem an inept orchestrator. Also, Schumann’s writing for cello isn’t conventionally idiomatic; Alisa Weilerstein has observed that “the virtuoso parts are a bit thankless, because they are much more difficult than they actually sound!”

Then there’s the tempos. In October 1851, Schumann asked Robert Bockmühl to read through the piece, doubtless hoping the Düsseldorf cellist/composer would be interested in performing it. Bockmühl objected to Schumann’s crotchet = 144 for the first movement and asked him to take it down to 96. Schumann relented only so far as 130, and even that is much faster than what you usually hear at the outset of the concerto, players taking their cue from his Nicht zu Schnell and not the metronome mark. (As with the opening Maestoso of Chopin’s F-Minor Second Piano Concerto, with its crotchet = 138, the lyric nature of the first theme induces performers to disregard the metronome mark.) Schumann’s 63 for the F-sharp-major Langsam allows the music to flow; here, too, performers tend to slow down, and then there’s a tendency to take the Sehr lebhaft finale faster than its playful 114, blurring the dialogue between Schumann’s two invented alter egos, dreamy Eusebius and impulsive Florestan.

I was curious as to whether Zander would reduce his normal string section. For Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 at last Friday’s Boston Philharmonic concert, he had just 38 strings. This time out, the program listed 82 string players, and I counted well in excess of 60 on stage during the Schumann. It’s understandable: the kids are there to learn, and they won’t learn if they don’t play. To say that the sound picture wasn’t quite what the composer had in mind would be an understatement, but Zander actually managed pretty well.   

Fung — who was making his second appearance with the BPYO, having given a superb reading of the Elgar concerto in February 2022 — did better than that. He didn’t tear into the Nicht zu schnell at 130, but he did suggest Florestan rather than Eusebius, and the combination of singing tone and cogent phrasing made questions of tempo irrelevant. Florestan had a lilt in his step and a bit of gruffness in his voice; Eusebius, when the melting second theme arrived, was almost shy. Right before the false reprise of the first theme in F-sharp minor, solo horn pops up with that first theme; Mauricio Martinez played it with pure tone and just a hint of bite, leaving you to wonder what the composer had in mind.

Zander and Fung scrupulously observed Schumann’s Etwas zuückhaltend marking at the end of the first movement (another hint that the Langsam is about to begin), and if the tempo for the Langsam came short of the 63-metronome mark, it was close enough. This slow movement features a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra’s principal cellist, as if Clara were accompanying Schumann. Sophia Knappe played a winsome Clara to Fung’s Robert, and together they made the 4/4 movement seem to waltz. Zander framed the winds’ reprise of the first movement’s first theme nicely; Fung paid due attention to the “Schneller” transition into the Sehr lebhaft finale. Here the winds and brass — pairs of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and trumpet — chirped brightly, Zander created a good balance in the development, and Fung reveled in the falling fifths that Schumann associated with Clara while remaining alert to the composer’s uneven phrase lengths. Schumann’s unusual accompanied cadenza took on the character of an improvisation; Fung’s playing made it seem that the concerto’s “virtuoso parts” aren’t difficult at all.

Back in 2022, Fung won reviewers’ hearts by announcing his encore — the Sarabande from Bach’s First Cello Suite — in a voice that reached the back of Symphony Hall’s second balcony. This time out, he just dove right in. That didn’t make his passionate reading of the “Prayer” movement from Ernest Bloch’s From Jewish Life any less memorable.           

Cole Turkel, principal clarinetist on the Schumann Cello Concerto and Simon Choi (all photos by Hilary Scott)

Mahler’s Fifth has always been a puzzle; the solution may be Carolyn Baaxendale’s suggestion that the symphony is really about “conveying expressions of personal mastery as opposed to complete confidence in some higher order.” A military Trauermarsch in C-sharp minor opens with the same trumpet tattoo that in the first movement of the Fourth signaled a panic attack. Mahler conjures the mood of “Der Tambourg’sell,” his Knaben Wunderhorn song about a doomed drummer, but he also quotes from the first of his Kindertotenlieder, “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n.” The A-minor second movement unleashes a storm of rebellion against God or fate; a massive D-major brass chorale appears to offer redemption, only to evaporate into thin air, leaving shards of protest behind.

The D-major Scherzo — what Mahler at one point called “Die Welt ohne Schwere” (“The World without Gravity”) — finds a shy city waltz dating a robust country ländler, after which an obbligato horn bids farewell to Wunderhorn innocence. All three eventually join in a dizzy dance; by the end of the movement, they’re inseparable. In a letter Mahler wrote to Alma during rehearsals for the symphony’s 1904 Cologne premiere, he said of the Scherzo, “And the public — heavens! — what kind of face will they make when they are confronted with this chaos out of which a world keeps being born, only to fall apart again at once, these primeval jungle sounds, this rushing, roaring, raging sea, these dancing stars, these breathtaking, scintillating, flashing waves.” 

The F-major Adagietto, for strings and harp, alludes to the second of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, “Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen,” as well as to the “gaze” motif from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, who was a friend of the Mahlers, recalled that both Gustav and Alma had told him this movement was Mahler’s musical love letter to her; Alma never claimed as much in her memoirs, though she certainly would have recognized and understood the Tristan allusion. The D-major Rondo-Finale opens on a different note, quoting Mahler’s cheeky Wunderhorn song “Lob des hohen Verstandes” (“Praise of Lofty Discrimination”), in which a cuckoo and a nightingale engage in a singing contest and the donkey judge — chosen by the cuckoo because of his long ears — awards the prize to the cuckoo, whose simpler song is easier to understand. (Could Mahler have had in mind the music critics of his day?) In the midst of the movement’s fugato follies, the Adagietto’s main theme appears, now sped up and sprightly, almost a polka, and then the chorale from the second movement returns, this time triumphantly sustained. The symphony ends with a cathartic descending thump that suggests the sound of a composer booting a reviewer down a flight of stairs.

 Zander has a long history with the Fifth. He’s made recordings with the BPO (early 1980s), the NEC Youth Philharmonic (1997), and the Philharmonia of London (2000). His most recent performance, with the BPO in April 2019, ran a reasonable 71 minutes; this one approached 73. It started well, with Reynolds Martin’s militant trumpet conveying the flüchtig (fleeting) for the final triplet of the opening tattoo. Zander’s reading was mournful rather than defiant, heavy-footed at times, but the overall tempo and timing approximated what Mahler himself left us in the piano roll of the Trauermarsch that he made in 1905. A neat Luftpause preceded the appearance of the consolatory Abgesang; I always think the first Trio (Plötzlich schneller. Leidenschaftlich. Wild) ought to go faster, but the tempo here matched the piano roll. Zander drew brilliant, crystalline playing from the orchestra, with just a hint of overbalancing in the brass. I did wish he had sustained more weight in the big Klagend climax before letting it wind down.

The second movement (Stürmisch bewegt. Mit größter Vehemenz) ran an expansive 16 minutes; the orchestra sounded vehement in the opening outburst and ferocious in the development without any loss of clarity or detail, though there could have been more contrast in tempo. The march recitative benefited from a gratifyingly audible timpani underpinning; the Abgesang achieved Mahler’s marking of Plötzlich wieder langsam; trombones and tuba were black with outrage in the recapitulation. The chorale rose to magnificent heights before vanishing in mystery.

Zander followed with a robust Scherzo highlighted by gorgeous work from the brass and in particular Graham Lovely’s haunting obbligato horn. The waltz, marked Etwas ruhiger, slowed just enough and had a subtle Viennese lilt; the Wunderhorn farewell was poignant. Toward the end of the movement, however, the odd bobble emerged from the horns; then the stretto coda clotted, and the bang-bang octave descent of the final two bars misfired.

Tempo is an issue in the fourth movement, where the Sehr langsam notation seems to contradict the measured sense of the Adagietto title. Mahler’s own performances of the movement are said to have averaged around eight minutes. Mengelberg and Bruno Walter both heard him conduct the Fifth; Mengelberg with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 1926 took just 7:15 for the Adagietto, and Walter in his 1947 New York Philharmonic recording checked in at 7:37. Since then, timings have slowed: 12 minutes is not unusual, and 14 not unheard of.

Zander in his 1980s BPO recording took 11:15 for the movement; that dropped to 9:19 with the NEC and 8:33 with the Philharmonia. With the BPO in 2019, he settled on about 10 minutes, and that felt right: the movement had room to sing, but it didn’t try to save the world. Friday’s Adagietto went at a similar pace, Zander following the ebb and flow of Mahler’s hypermarked score, but to my ears, he seemed stranded between pushing forward at a slow tempo and holding back at a faster one. That key moment in the return of the A section, where the first violins’ original F–B-flat–A changes to F–G–A, just slid by, and the movement as a whole sounded tentative, undecided.

The Rondo-Finale went at a breezy, cheerful tempo, with epic horns and gamboling winds to start, limpid fugal sections, and a sweet return of the Adagietto theme. There were moments when Zander and the orchestra didn’t seem on the same page — either that or the overbalancing of the brass made the musical line hard to follow. But the final appearance of the Adagietto theme rollicked, and that set up the return of the chorale, where the brass were heroic, and then the coda, which, with Zander following Mahler’s request to accelerate, blazed to a crisp, exuberant finish, the reviewer hitting the bottom of the staircase with a resounding thud.

At the end of a short address to the audience Friday, in which he encouraged everyone to support the BPYO in its upcoming tour to Basel, Prague, Hamburg, Vienna, and Berlin, Zander reminded us that no performance is perfect but that, fortunately, the orchestra would still have seven rehearsals before setting out. The Fifth is an extraordinarily taxing symphony, with more than 800 measures in the Scherzo alone, so it’s not surprising that concentration might have flagged at the end of a long evening, or that orchestral balances might still need adjustment. Seven rehearsals down the line, the BPYO’s European audiences should look forward to this Mahler. 

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.

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