Boston and Berlin at Carnegie in 2015

 

Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall

The fall 2015 orchestral season at Carnegie Hall was dominated by the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s traditional three-concert visit, this time in October, and a five-concert traversal of Beethoven’s symphonies by the Berlin Philharmonic under their outgoing principle conductor/artistic director, Simon Rattle. Both had their joys and peculiarities, but only Berlin confronted us with any actual disappointments.

The Boston Symphony’s last visit, in the spring of 2015, was richer in peculiarities than in joys. In fact it was rather strange—most notably one the loudest concerts I have ever heard. The series began on April 15 with an energetic, colorful, even brash reading of Gunther Schuller’s Dreamscape, the New York premiere of one of the composer’s last works to be completed before his death on June 21. At this concert Mr. Schuller was very much alive and present, and, a few weeks earlier at the Boston performances, ready to voice his dissatisfaction with the preparation of the performance. I can’t say Nelsons’ performance was ineffective, but it did indeed lack the precision and nuance James Levine brought to the Schuller premieres he conducted or those I’ve heard during the Festival of Contemporary Music. Nuance was certainly not lacking in Richard Goode’s reading of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in B Flat, K. 595, no. 27. Goode, while giving the very best his exceptional intelligence and refinement can offer, seemed perhaps a little less involved in Nelsons’ chamber-music-like approach to Mozart’s orchestral parts than some other pianists, for example Lars Vogt, who seemed more sympathetic to Nelsons’ concentration on lively, colorful playing than to Levine’s more formal approach. (See below. The Mozart I refer to was superb!) Nelsons has made his passion for Richard Strauss clear, and he demonstrated it in this warm, colorful reading of Ein Heldenleben, the lowest-decibel, most varied of the large work performances on the programs. It was absorbing as Straussian narrative and beatuifully played, although short on subtlety—a quality which serves Strauss well, and amply in evidence among the great interpreters of his scores, for example his former assistant, George Szell. What was actually lacking in the performance came from Malcolm Lowe’s detached playing of the violin solo, which seemed to unfold in a cool, hyper-elegant world of its own. The solo is in fact an undeniably caricatural portrayal of the womanly ways of the hero’s wife, i.e. Strauss’ own, and it is highly politically incorrect in the world of today. I don’t blame Mr. Lowe for feeling uncomfortable with his part, if indeed he was, but I believe he side-stepped a thorny, but artistically stimulating problem in cleaving to patrician virtuosity. And Nelsons let him go his own way. At least it was exquisitely played.

Next came a program of Shostakovich, bookending Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, in an over-the-top reading by Christian Tetzlaff, revealing a showy side to his playing which isn’t always in the forefront. The violinist showed little interest in the more inward, classical qualities of the work, producing a spectacular gamut of color and texture from his instrument. To top it all off, Tetzlaff used his own cadenza, based on Beethoven’s own for his piano arrangement of the concerto. This includes extensive parts for tympani and trumpets in a military parody. This was great fun, and Nelsons proved an enthusiastic co-perpetrator in a performance that has to be accepted as a success for what it was—a visitation of the wild days of the pre-Heifetz violin soloist. Now if only Tetzlaff had taken on the role of Frau Strauss! The concert began with a tenebrous, suitably frightening performance of the Passacaglia from Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, fully realized in color, expression, and drama, and concluded with his Symphony No. 10, which was surely the most successful of the large works in the series. Deutsche Grammophon have already released concert recordings of both as part of their five-disc series of Shostakovich’s orchestral works related to Joseph Stalin. One point about Andris Nelsons’ somewhat mercurial work as a conductor is that his performances vary quite a bit from concert to concert. I haven’t yet attempted to compare the recording to my recollection of this concert, but I can say that what I heard in Carnegie Hall was as musically impressive as it was ear-shattering. The BSO’s playing was committed, even intense, and Nelsons projected a clear sense of the symphony’s architecture and dramaturgy, as Dutoit did in San Francisco last year. Shostakovich’s structure—and, yes, logic—can easily lapse into obscurity—above all in the hands of Valery Gergiev, I have found—but Nelsons gave us a clear sense of where we were in the hopeful, but still deeply disquieting landscape left behind by Stalin at his death. There could be no question that this was Nelsons and the BSO at their best—at this stage of their relationship.

The series concluded with a rather baffling Mahler Sixth that seemed relentlessly fff from beginning to end. It was most curious that Nelsons’ Shostakovich was a model of clarity, while his Mahler, above all the Sixth, which is especially neat, even obvious in this respect, seemed muddled, disorganized, and overlong—qualities I’ve never perceived in this work before. Nelsons plowed straight over all of Mahler’s varied dynamics, colors, textures, and symphonic spaces in a mindless bellowing, which, as well as the orchestra played, left me with a feeling of having been bludgeoned out of my senses.

From this series, among other, happier, experiences with Nelsons and the BSO, and what I have heard and read from other listeners, above all Lloyd Schwartz and Charles Warren, writing in these pages, I gather that Andris Nelsons has taken up his first years with the orchestra as an experimental process.

From the October series at Carnegie, it was clear that the consensus among Maestro Nelsons, the musicians, and the administration was that loud didn’t work. This series marked a return to a more familiar range of dynamics, both among the visiting orchestras at Carnegie and for the BSO, whether at Carnegie or Symphony Hall.

The first concert, on October 20, was alternately satisfying, wonderful, and disastrous. It began with Sebastian Currier’s Divisions, the New York premiere of a co-commission by the BSO, the Seattle Symphony, and the National Orchestra of Belgium for the centenary of World War I. Mr. Currier’s piece was handsome, well-wrought, and serious, if a trifle academic and diluted in individual character. Nelsons and the BSO gave it an appropriately respectful and elegant performance. Pianist Lars Vogt then followed with Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto—which to my ears suffered a murderous dismemberment in his hands. I have never heard such an unpleasant, truly bad performance in a major concert hall, and I was truly shocked to hear Herr Vogt, a musician I admire, play so inappropriately—and not because he was having an off night, rather because his conception of the work was entirely wrong and because he insisted in hammering his misconception through to us in the most violent, percussive way. There is no getting around the fact that Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, composed mostly in 1800 and finished in 1803, is in essence a classical work, most directly inspired by Mozart’s concerto K. 491. If Beethoven’s use of trumpets and drums are more aggressive and overtly military and the cadenza (written out in 1809) expands into grand gestures in octaves, these are insufficient to justify any transgression of the work’s classical foundations. Vogt was hell-bent on making it come across as a precursor of the large-scale, Romantic concerto of the mid-nineteenth century. The Steinway he chose for the evening was overly bright and thin in tone, and he produced sounds from it which varied from the harsh to the hideous. Nelsons did his best to accommodate this madness. The second half of the concert was devoted to Brahms’ Second Symphony, a work Nelsons conducted at Tanglewood with some success before he was appointed Music Director. He clearly wanted to improve on that—which he did, in an odd way. I found it a rich, rewarding performance of an over-familiar work. Its warm strings and winds, lyricism, and bright energy were in an organic, symbiotic balance, and I was delighted with the result. However, the ensemble was about the loosest I have ever heard from the BSO or any professional orchestra. This seemed to be part of Nelsons’ tack that evening, at least in this work, and it didn’t bother me, except for one point in the third movement, if I remember correctly, when ensemble really began to fall apart, and the cellos, unable to see Nelsons’ beat, actually missed their cue. A rather strange approach, especially in a Carnegie Hall guest appearance, but the performance was fully alive and far more convincing than most of the performances one hears of the Second these days.

The second evening of the BSO’s visit, October 21, consisted of the now legendary performance of Richard Strauss’ Elektra with an exceptional cast led by Christine Goerke in the title role. So much has been written, mostly in a rapturous tone, that I have little to add. I believe most reviews focused—justly—on Goerke’s spectacular performance—almost always entirely secure, and perfectly focused, both vocally and psychologically, but it is worth bearing in mind that the entire cast sang and acted on the same stellar level. In fact, I don’t believe I have ever attended any opera performance that was so consistently cast with outstanding singers who were absolutely appropriate to their roles, above all Gun-Brit Barkmin as Chrysothemis, Jane Henschel as Klytaemnestra, Gerhard Siegel as Aegisth, and James Rutherford as Orest.

The soloists were backed up by the great Tanglewood Festival Chorus in their very best form, under the direction of James Bagwell, Guest Chorus Conductor, following James Oliver’s retirement. Under Maestro Bagwell the Bard Festival Chorus have developed a passion for acting, and anyone who has heard and seen their work on stage, for example in the Bard Summerscape productions of Schreker’s Der ferne Klang (prostitutes) and Taneyev’s Oresteia (monsters, i.e. the Furies) will understand the level of commitment and dramatic élan he inspires in his singers. It was more than apparent during Elektra. Andris Nelsons’ direction was energetic and propulsive, as in his concert performance of Salome with the Vienna Philharmonic (I missed his ensuing performance with the BSO). With Elektra, by contrast, Nelsons’ tempo changes were more marked, which is only what the score called for, and he was able to revel in its rich orchestral detail, as well as the ironies in the exchanges of the characters, as Hofmannsthal rewrote them.

I’ve always revered Elektra as an adaptation of ancient Greek drama with its turn-of-the-century sensuousness, irony, and Dekadenz, and the main critical thought I took away that evening concerned the opera more than the performance. Although Salome, as a more established work in the operatic canon, can seem somewhat tired to us today, two outstanding recent performances—the one under Maestro Nelsons I just mentioned, and Nézet-Séguin’s almost completely staged performance under the brilliant Kevin Newbury in Verizon Hall, Philadelphia—have freshened it for me and impressed on me just what a powerful success Strauss achieved with it. In Elektra, in scenes like the opening dialogue of servant women he and Hofmannsthal seem to be trying a bit too hard to equal the previous hit. If this artificiality struck me that evening, it was only because of the excellence of the singers in these smaller roles and the detail and concentration of Nelsons’ direction.

Maestro Nelsons closed the series with two twentieth-century Russian works, Prokofiev’s cantata, Alexander Nevsky, after his film score for Eisenstein’s classic film, and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. These performances showed both the conductor and the Boston Symphony, as he is forming it, at the very top of their form, not to mention the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, again under the direction of James Bagwell, in Nevsky. Both works are richly scored, with strings, woodwinds, and brass closely intertwined, varied by Prokofiev with solos evoking vocal lines and by Rachmaninoff with the narrative solo color of ballet scores, providing a true element of dance music in a work which equally approaches a three movement symphony. Both works brought home how Nelsons has transformed the orchestra’s playing. James Levine, with his almost obsessive passion for solos—first and foremost vocal solos, stemming from his career-long immersion in opera—encouraged the BSO to play as an ensemble of soloists. Levine’s highest pitch of inspiration was often stimulated by a soloist, and this approach is essential to his music-making. Nelsons’ passion is directed at the orchestra as a whole, and often he seems to be in love with the sound and workings of the ensemble. Hence, as absorbing and beautiful as an instrumental solo may be, Nelsons never interrupts our awareness of how it remains a part of a whole. In the end one can’t say either approach is better than the other, but both Rachmaninoff’s late blossoming and Prokofiev’s edgier sonorities were impeccably served by the Nelsons BSO. His concept of Alexander Nevsky was softer and more free-flowing than, say, Muti’s, which retains the incisiveness and structural sense of Eisenstein’s cutting in the original film. The lyrical and more reflective passages, above all the alto solo, sung very movingly, with restraint, by Nadezhda Serdyuk, were very beautifully turned. Still, one can’t say that the energy of the scenes of battle and celebration sequences lost any of their impact.

The TFC’s eloquent phrasing and vivid involvement in the Russian language also helped raise this Nevsky to the highest level. I consider myself fortunate to have been hearing James Bagwell’s work frequently in his capacity as Director of the the Bard Festival Chorus both at Bard and in Carnegie Hall, with the American Symphony, not to mention his superb performance of Boïto’s Mefistofele with the former Collegiate Chorale—a rare performance in which the importance choral parts received their proper due. (Click here for my interview with Bagwell on the subject.) Judging by the clarity, litheness, and outstanding diction of the chorus both in German and Russian, Boston and Tanglewood audiences could look forward to nothing by improvement and growth under James Bagwell. He is, together with Oliver before his retirement, the finest secular choral conductor in the United States, and the BSO/TFC would be wise to snap him up as Oliver’s successor.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, his final work, written during his American exile, after his admirers had given up hope of anything more from him, has been getting more and more attention in recent years, as conductors realize not so much what a splendid vehicle it is for their orchestras, as what a profound work it is—only partly concealed by the dance-like energy of its rhythms and its occasionally whimsical tone. I have heard several superb performances of the work, but Nelsons appears to have immersed himself more deeply than any other conductor. His eloquent shaping of phrasing, harmony, and color showed his deep identification with the music. This performance was indeed special, and that and the Elektra give a vivid idea of what sort of high points Boston audiences can look forward to over the coming years.

***

I understand that there was a good deal of grumbling among the local critics about the decision to program a cycle of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, but it seems entirely appropriate as a final or penultimate statement from an outgoing principal conductor, as Simon Rattle is at this point. The problem is that Rattle’s relationship to these works began late, with his 2003 Vienna Philharmonic recordings, another orchestra which, like Berlin, can play them impeccably without a conductor. What I heard of those recordings seemed cautious and insecure, as one might expect from a newcomer. Twelve years have passed, but Rattle remains most confident and understanding in the late Romantic, early Twentieth Century repertoire which made his reputation at Birmingham. He remains a musician who can light up a particular moment in an emotive or colorful piece and also sustain a performance of a long work of this type, but the kind of structural thinking necessary for Beethoven escapes him. Now as then, it was clear that that kind of organic Schenkerian vision, necessarily assimilated to a subconscious level, is not among Rattle’s many strengths.

He himself has spoken frankly about his differences with the BPO, and ultimately, I’m not sure if they’ve been a healthy match for one another. I have enjoyed some of their performances and reviewed them favorably, but overall Rattle has pushed the orchestra towards an excessively luxuriant sound that borders on the caricatural. The great first desk players were not really compromised in their solos, but there was a sense of luxury goods flaunted for their own sake. Those of us who have been bothered by this would have been hugely relieved by the Beethoven cycle. The orchestra seemed to have reverted to its characteristic sonority—warm and humane, not losing this quality in the high strings and capable of dusky tones as well, and all possessing Berlin’s unique texture, suggesting perhaps fine, but not over-refined, leather. Seasoned lovers of the Philharmoniker, of course, would not have been expecting “American” precision of ensemble, generally eschewed by the orchestra over many years. My totally speculative theory is that the conductor and the orchestra settled on a truce, or at least a deal—in the orchestra’s favor. There seemed to be only limited interpretive control from Rattle; the orchestra played pretty much as they wanted, except for the occasional nominal accelerando and other instances noted below; and the result was, as one might expect, mixed.

I should say that I missed the Fourth, Seventh, and Ninth. The opening concert consisted of the First and the “Eroica.” The First was virtually a throwaway. Neither Rattle nor the orchestra seemed to give it the concentration it deserves, and the final movement was just too fast. The “Eroica,” on the other hand, was splendidly played and solidly paced. Something intangible seemed missing. The slow movement, for all of Rattle’s loving gestures, left me cold, and the astounding, endlessly faceted finale failed to carry me along. This performance, with so many details apparently well-attended to, just wouldn’t allow admittance. In the second concert, the little-played Leonore Overture No. 1 was thrown in as a curtain raiser, sufficiently grand in gesture to become a bit diffuse, followed by a spirited, but incohesive and unmemorable Second, and a Fifth which exhibited some of the same problems as the Third. Rattle showed his Romantic cards by omitting the first movement repeat, but including one in the last movement, suggesting an expansion to Romantic proportions, which favor an extended finale. In the classically-rooted Fifth, it seemed like no more than pointless tinkering. Meanwhile the odd-numbered symphonies, and even the Second, were handsomely played throughout, in true Berlin style.

I’m happy to say that one evening included a resounding success, the last one I heard, with the Eighth and the Sixth. The Eighth, which requires either total clarity and focus from the conductor or strong unanimity among the orchestra, at least partly fell into the limbo of the “Eroica” and the Fifth, as much of a joy as it was to hear Berlin play it, but the Sixth was truly glorious. In this there did seem to be more communication between conductor and orchestra, and Rattle seemed to identify with the music at a deeper level. Perhaps the narrative/descriptive aspects of the movements attracted him, although the general tone of the performance struck me as well within the boundaries of absolute music, except, perhaps, for the peasant dance. It was gratifying to hear both Sir Simon and the Philharmoniker bring the series to a high point together.

We New Yorkers are likely to be favored with on or two more visits before 2019. Then the era of Kirill Petrenko will begin!…to be followed by a Nelsons era, I presume.

Michael Miller

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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