Boston Symphony Orchestra—Life in Winter: Poga and Ohlsson, Eschenbach, and Haitink

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Garrick Ohlsson with Andris Poga and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo Stu Rosner.

Garrick Ohlsson with Andris Poga and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo Stu Rosner.

On January 25th the Boston Symphony Orchestra and assistant conductor Andris Poga completed a series of concerts that, to judge by that final evening, made for one of the season’s high points. Mr. Poga completes his term with BSO this year and moves on to take over the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra in his native Riga. He is an imposing figure onstage—vigorous but not flamboyant, authoritative in his gestures—and on this occasion showed a remarkable inwardness with all the music he conducted.

Poga opened with Wagner’s Overture to his early opera Rienzi, a product of the composer’s time as a conductor in Riga, thus giving Poga a personal connection to the music. The reading was grand and gorgeous, the BSO strings and brass fully up to the mark—I wished it only a little lighter on its feet, as the various themes and moods change in this potpourri-style overture. Rienzi is a tribute to an idealistic democratic reformer up against oppressive forces, and its subject matter and origins in Wagner’s stay in Eastern Europe link it to the works of Lutosławski and Shostakovich that made up the rest of Poga’s program. Also, Wagner comes back in explicit quotation in the Shostakovich.

Witold Lutosławski’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1988), written at the time the Soviet Union was falling apart, is a wonderful but lighter work than the composer’s great Cello Concerto from the late 1960s, where the individual soul, represented by the cello, is pitted against the power of regime and society, figured in the orchestra. The Piano Concerto opens with rising chirping figures for flutes and piccolos and then the piano flutters in with very high notes on the keyboard. Piano and orchestra seem to belong to the same world and to proceed in the same high spirit—indeed to exist in a certain ethereal world—throughout the piece. Lutosławski draws some real contrasts, but manages to incorporate them back into one driving sonic inspiration. In the first movement, pleasantly agitated sections are interrupted by the piano leading the orchestra with a more extended melody, but one has to listen hard to tell the difference between sections. The piece moves on through four movements, but with no stopping or space between. In the second, piano and orchestra chase each other in a nonstop whirl. The third movement is almost a piano solo, where a time or two we hear bluesy, Gershwin-like harmonies, yet all is subsumed in the composer’s peculiar—I want to say “ethereal” again—ultra-modernist sound world, and the piano seems not so much to want to retreat from the world and nurture its own soul, as to sing to the world, expecting it to listen. In the finale, a modified chaconne (fixed-length and fixed-tempo variations on a theme), the piano and orchestra make statements that are slightly askew—they don’t begin and end together, but overlap, and the piano is far more mellifluous than the orchestra. But it is a dialogue, not a contest or a picture of alienation. Big repeated chords in the piano à la Rachmaninoff come into the mix, and all leads to a blazing conclusion. Poga and pianist Garrick Ohlsson put everything across with great clarity and assurance. Ohlsson has a handsome big sound, and always articulates many layers of color and musical interest in whatever he plays. He played with the score here, and I felt that in the finale he was a little bound to it—I kept wanting him to let go a little more—Lutosławski seemed to want more insouciance than we were getting. Just a quibble, really, about such a successful performance—and Ohlsson certainly blazed plenty in the concluding moments.

Dmitri Shostakovich was prominent in the musical life of the Soviet Union from the 1930s until his death in 1975, and it becomes more and more clear that all his work, both the grand and the intimate and private, reflects a perpetual struggle to function as a creative artist up against a forbidding regime—to please it when necessary, to make himself tolerable to it, to resist in some way, to assert a depth of soul on his part and on that of the Russian people, a depth of soul that would not be co-opted. His Symphony No. 15 (1971), his last, is a large, spooky work of (much of the time) minimal sounds, silence, and emptiness, with whimsical-seeming quotations from Rossini and Wagner. Poga and the BSO were very convincing with the piece, sustaining the mood, relishing the beauties, leaving one in no doubt that everything here is just right and well judged, that this is a masterpiece. The opening Allegretto, several times quoting the William Tell Overture and maintaining that piece’s rhythmic signature, da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM, was maybe a little too hard driven by Poga, not quite the evocation of childhood and toys that Shostakovich intended. The big succeeding Adagio was mesmerizing, with solo voices, especially cello as beautifully rendered by Jules Eskin, but also violin, tuba, and more, singing out against the void and a minimally answering beyond—the soul against the society, the state, perhaps, but also against debilitation and death, which Shostakovich was facing. A slow funeral march in the latter part of the movement works up suddenly to a fierce conclusion with lots of brass—outer forces overwhelm, or the soul transcends this life, hard to say. A brief, laughing scherzo—futile—leads to another large slow movement, which quotes Wagner’s “fate” motif from the Ring operas and finds its way to a coda with knocking sounds in the percussion gently breaking a protracted silence—life surrendered to a ticking clock, time running out. One feels a longing for Wagner’s West-European and 19th-century articulation of a myth that encompasses and explains human experience, but there is also condescension toward Wagner. Wagner won’t suffice any more. Shostakovich’s here and now compel renunciation and resignation. He can only assert, “I am here.”

In an interesting way, BSO concerts just before and after Poga’s say still more about the perspective of the late 19th century on the 20th, or the 20th on the late 19th. On January 26th, Christoph Eschenbach led a powerfully effective account of Anton Bruckner’s D-Minor Ninth Symphony (1894-96), a far more anguished and violent work than any product of 20th-century Eastern Europe, and perhaps of the 20th century altogether. Where does this anguish and violence come from—wrenching harmonies, shocking juxtapositions, unnerving pounding rhythms, brass seeming to sound the trumpet of Judgment Day? Something awful seems to be foreseen. Eschenbach was not the best at sustaining a clear line and tension throughout movements, but he lunged into each episode with passion and a sense of mission. The orchestra was magnificent. I have never heard the BSO play Bruckner with such commitment.

February 6th Bernard Haitink led a program culminating in Brahms’s Fourth Symphony (1885), another apocalyptic work, in the bleak key of E-Minor. First Haitink gave us Steven Stucky’s contemporary re-orchestration of Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary, 17th-century somberness made immediate and subtly disorienting, rather like Schönberg’s re-orchestrations of Bach and Brahms. The Schumann Piano Concerto brought life to the fore in all its sunshine and shadow. Murray Perahia played with a big warm sound and great lyricism. Then the tragic Brahms. Jan Swafford’s eloquent program note accounts for some of this music’s inspiration—Brahms’s alarm at new anti-Semitic, nationalist, and autocratic tendencies that, he seemed to realize, would lead to oppression and wars and horrors to come. Bruckner the otherworldly mystic and the politically astute Brahms seem to have intuited a 20th century that later artists would suffer and witness—and in various ways transcend, of course. Haitink, celebrating his 85th year, found plenty of focus and energy for the program, and drew forceful playing from the orchestra. His Brahms Fourth was not the grandest in conception, the most visionary in its sense of tragedy and apocalypse (try Furtwängler), but it was turbulent and vital, undeniable energies seeking a resolution.

About the author

Charles Warren

Charles Warren studied literature and music formally and now teaches film history and analysis at Boston University and in the Harvard Extension School. He is the author of “T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare,” and edited and contributed to the volumes “Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film” and “Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Hail Mary:’ Women and the Sacred in Film.”

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