B-List Works Shine Forth at Symphony Hall. Andrew Davis leads the BSO in Vaughan-Williams, Prokofiev (with Yuja Wang), and Rimsky-Korsakoff

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Ralph Vaughan-Williams

Ralph Vaughan-Williams

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall
March 27, 2014
conducted by Andrew Davis
Yuja Wang, piano soloist

Vaughan-Williams, Symphony no. 6 in E minor
Prokofiev, Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor
Rimsky-Korsakoff, Capriccio Espagnol

The oeuvre of the each of the greatest, most familiar composers can be imagined as a personal cosmos, a collection of works of great power and quality, spanning a wide range of style and expression. Mention of their names is almost enough to arouse expectations of music belonging on the A-List. Other significant but less ubiquitous composers can be known to concert audiences through small numbers of repeatedly performed works that possess an identifiable sound, style, and mood. Less familiar but important works by two such composers, Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Serge Prokofiev, received fine performances by the Boston Symphony in late March, along with an A-List favorite by Rimsky-Korsakoff. These works gave audiences a chance to savor some less familiar, even surprising sides of their composers’ artistic personalities, and to provoke curiosity about what other works by these composers might be lurking in the shadows of the B-List.

There are some who might assert that the canon of Vaughan-Williams’ symphonies is one of consistently high quality and interest, but which of the nine comes to mind as typifying his artistic voice? One way to ascertain this is to see how they are represented in currently available recordings. The clear “winner“ of this quasi-popularity contest is the predictable one: Symphony no. 5 in D major, recorded by twenty-two conductors, embodies the composer’s familiar “pastoral“ mood and derives a philosophical/moral idealism from its relationship to “A Pilgrim’s Progress.” Second in popularity, and representing an opposing side of the composer’s temperament, is Symphony no. 4 in F minor, with eighteen performances, a consistently dour, acerbic work that seems to express anger and disappointment, whether at historical developments of the time, or at the direction musical innovation was taking in the work of modernist composers (like Schoenberg, Bartok, or Stravinsky). Running third in “popularity“ is Symphony no. 6 at sixteen; its character is closer to the Fourth than the Fifth, but is less easy to stereotype; it falls more into the category of dramatic/tragic than the lyrical/pastoral. Its contradictory, puzzling, and unconventional elements make it harder to summarize, but also make it consistently surprising. These elements are well integrated into an unusual four-movement design that runs without breaks. They render the listening experience gripping, compelling continuous listener attention.

The allure of the less familiar also belongs to the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto. Of his five piano concerti, the clear “winner“ in our informal contest is the obvious one, the Third Piano Concerto, with forty-one pianists represented. This does not quite rise to the level of the Rachmaninoff Second at eighty-nine, but for a work in an arguably modern idiom, it is in a dominant position. The Prokofiev Second has not fared poorly; it is not as popular as the Second Violin Concerto (thirty-three) but is also not far behind at 28. A consciously eccentric work, it was designed to shake up the jury at the competition for which the composer wrote it in 1913; and it still has elements of grotesquerie and outrageousness that could potentially cause it to sound dated. At close to a century old, however, that seems not to have happened; its gestures are so vivacious, fresh, and audacious that it makes for rousing listening. Its challenges call forth super-human exertions from the soloist (both technical and musical) but it is far from virtuoso clap-trap; over-the-top character and prodigiousness (the composer was twenty-two when he composed it) are achieved in an original and characteristic way that even goes beyond the composer’s other early piano works with the possible exception of the contemporaneous Toccata, a kindred work without orchestra.

Both symphony and concerto received alert, committed performances by conductor Andrew Davis and pianist Yuja Wang. Each exerted full control over the significant technical demands and demonstrated their creative sympathy with the unique colors and emotions of these very individualistic works. The pianist, who seems to be developing something of a cult following, threw herself into Prokofiev’s digital decathalon with joyful abandon, playing with a lightness and buoyancy a world away from the powerhouse assaults that some of her colleagues bring to this composer’s piano works. The bright, almost edgy tone of the piano sometimes lacked the heft to cut through the more thickly scored moments, but the solo part projected a personality that alternated lyrical rumination, witty improvisatory excursions across the breadth of the keyboard, and wildly complex textures that seemed to stun the orchestra into silence, particularly in the first movement. The impish perpetual motion scherzo took no time at all, with the pianist leading the chase and easily staying ahead of the pack. The third movement is similar in character to the middle movement of the Third Concerto, mordantly minor and moderate in tempo. It is similar to the genre known in the US as a “patrol,” that is, a march (this one with a definite Russian flavor) which seems to approach from a distance, arrive with full force, and recede into silence. (A related example is Mussorgsky’s “Bydlo” from Pictures at an Exhibition.) The movement begins cautiously and ironically but develops an almost terrifyingly brutal climax before departing as if on tiptoes. The final movement is a three-part drama in the outer sections of which the orchestra goads the piano into action, while in the middle section, the folk-ironic tone and tempo of the previous movement return, flanked by solo piano ruminations that bring the music to a momentary standstill. Here pianistic verve and brilliance are required to keep the form from seeming overly extended (particularly in the middle section) but these were in ample supply and the energy curve brought the musical trajectory all the way to its brilliant conclusion. Prokofiev’s unique blend of irony, lyricism, waywardness, and brilliance received an early synthesis most convincingly in his works for piano both with and without orchestra, and this concerto is clear evidence of this.

The Vaughan-Williams symphony made a fine program companion. It is a more brooding and serious work, original in form and fully thought out in symphonic-architectural terms. It, too, possesses its share of irony verging on sarcasm, especially in the references to jazz in the saxophone solo of the second movement, which may offer a disapproving or at least rueful glance at the deterioration of cultural standards of the day. It stands in contrast to V-W’s more familiar loving references to traditional folk materials such as the close of the first movement.

Critics wrote of the work that it was a response to contemporary events: England had just concluded the war and was entering a difficult period of post-victory disillusionment. But the composer rejected such programmatic readings, saying “It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.” He also wrote, however, “the composer must not shut himself up and think about art, he must live with his fellows and make his art an expression of the whole community.”The easiest way to describe the music, whatever its intentions, would be in terms of the contemporary historical moment. The first movement, in minor, is constructed from a terse three-note motto announced immediately by the full orchestra, fortissimo. It evokes epic struggle and catastrophe which pervade the body of the movement, balanced by a lighter theme that strides and even swings forward with a degree of ironic purpose; but in the surprising coda, there is a sudden shift of mood as strings and harp sing out a folk-flavored hymn tune in major. It strides forward purposefully until it encounters the opening epical motto and its dire implications, whereupon the movement ends on fading strings at the bottom of the orchestra. The second movement has a strangely obsessive, militaristic rhythmic tattoo reminiscent of Mahler, Nielsen or Shostakovich, with whom one does not ordinarily associate this composer. The scherzo takes off with grim humor and bravado that seem to me to foreshadow the Wilfred Owen setting “Out there” from Britten’s War Requiem. It is in this movement that we encounter that ambivalently jazzy saxophone, which riffs on an inversion of the first movement motif. The material is dominated by tritones and minor seconds, imparting a flavor of film music. (V-W’s next symphony, “The Antarctic,” would in fact be developed from music originally composed for film.) Whether programmatic or not, there is a grim but satisfying emotional logic that leads from one theme and mood to the next, and from one movement to the next. The final goal of this journey proves the utter seriousness of the endeavor, as well as its freedom from the conventions of symphonic form: a last movement that is slow, quiet, and strictly contrapuntal, developed as a fugue without the slightest hint of drama. It has been described as cold, but that does not mean it is devoid of feeling. In the sympathetic hands of Andrew Davis and the Boston players, it came across as incredibly touching, as if, having exhausted all its capacity for bluster, sarcasm, exhortation, and sheer grim determination, the symphonic voice dwindles to an extended and muted conversation with itself lasting almost ten minutes, one which acknowledges a condition from which there is no apparent exit. The composer marked this movement “Epilogue,” indicating that while there might not be a program, there was a stage upon which the musical drama was enacted. Thanks to these performers, I now feel that this is the composer’s most accomplished, tautly organized and emotionally powerful symphony, one which speaks to us without any misty nostalgia for an irretrievable past but rather faces the present (both his and ours) with clear eyes and a sympathetic heart. It spoke directly and effectively to the Symphony Hall audience and has definitely joined my A-List.

About the author

Larry Wallach

Larry Wallach is a pianist, musicologist, and composer who lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and heads the Music Program at Simon’s Rock College of Bard. He has also taught composition at Bard College. He studied piano privately with Henry Danielowitz and Kenneth Cooper, and was trained at Columbia University where he studied music history with Paul Henry Lang, performance practices with Denis Stevens, and composition with Otto Luening, Jack Beeson, and Charles Wuorinen. He earned a doctorate in musicology in 1973 with a dissertation about Charles Ives. In 1977, he was awarded a grant to become part of a year-long National Endowment for the Humanities seminar at the University of North Carolina directed by William S. Newman, focussing on performance practices in earlier piano music. He went on to participate in the Aston Magna Summer Academy in 1980, where he studied fortepiano with Malcolm Bilson, both privately and in master classes.

Larry Wallach has been an active performer of chamber music with harpsichord and piano, and of twentieth century music. He has collaborated with harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper, with recorder virtuoso Bernard Krainis, with violinist Nancy Bracken of the Boston Symphony, with violinist/violist Ronald Gorevic, with gambist Lucy Bardo, and with his wife, cellist Anne Legêne, performing on both modern and baroque instruments. He has appeared with the Avanti Quintet, the New York Consort of Viols, and is a regular performer on the “Octoberzest” series in Great Barrington. He has been on the staffs of summer early music workshops at World Fellowship and Pinewoods Camp.
In 1996, he presented a program at the Bard Music Festival devoted to Charles Ives designed around a performance the composer’s Second Violin Sonata along with all the source tunes that are quoted in it. Part of this program was repeated at Lincoln Center in NY. He has also appeared on programs in Washington DC, and at St. Croix VI. As a composer, his works have been heard in New York, Boston, Amherst, the Berkshires, and at Bard College.

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