Five in the Afternoon, and more…the Boston Classical Season, So Far

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Pappano, Argerich, and Prokofiev

Pappano, Argerich, and Prokofiev

Rome’s Santa Cecilia Orchestra, led by Sir Antonio Pappano, with guest soloist Martha Argerich, visited Symphony Hall on Sunday, October 22nd, performing at the rather unusual hour of 5 p.m. Going into the concert, I was overtaken by the suggestion of my title for this review. Thinking of Lorca and Hemingway, who between them immortalized the phrase “Five in the Afternoon,” in connection with bullfighting, I wondered if we concert goers were in for a strong flavor of doom, transcended through ritual and magnificence. No such thing. The concert was all beauty and vitality, though certainly with magnificence about it.  This stunning event was the best orchestral concert of the fall in Boston.

The Santa Cecilia under music director Pappano sounds world class these days, one of the best orchestras in the world—making a big, rich, magnificent sound, or alternatively a quiet, rich, magnificent one, with excellent principal instrumentalists emerging in the solos.

Pappano opened with an abandoned prelude for Verdi’s Aida, evoking vividly if briefly the episodes of the opera, and its overall mood of heroic submission to fate—shades of Lorca and Hemingway there.

The concert continued with Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, featuring Argerich.

I was hugely impressed with Argerich, who in her mid 70s appears vital, healthy, even young. She played the Prokofiev note perfect—and I have never heard such turn-on-a-dime dexterity in rapid passages—kept thinking she must be wired with a heightened nervous system, beyond most human beings. Then there were the massive chords, and fine spun-out lyrical phrases. But what most impressed was that she seemed to take command of the piece—I was hearing its basic shape and various elaboration, page by page, as coming directly from the hands of Argerich. She seemed to lead the orchestra, which served—very compatibly—to provide accompaniment and flesh out details and sounds, make echoes, and so on. The orchestral sound was massive, though varied; Argerich was always clearly audible, spinning out her line or thundering back at the orchestra.

For an encore Argerich and Pappano played together at the keyboard, a water piece from Ravel’s Mother Goose. Pappano quietly played the chord progressions, Argerich doing all the rippling and sparkling.

After intermission, the orchestra gave a splendid account of Respighi’s Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome, with its exciting conclusion. Color, variety, the sense of a great cityscape, magnificent orchestral execution, all came across strongly. The pieces and the performance seemed the natural and inevitable response to Rome, as much as Puccini’s Tosca or the great Roman films of Rossellini (Rome: Open City), De Sica (Bicycle Thieves), or Pasolini (Accatone). But unlike these, Respighi’s fountains and Pines are thoroughly celebratory and life-affirming, festival pieces really. (The surreal Fellini is another story).

I left feeling, and felt for days, awed by this great orchestra, and haunted, most of all, by Argerich’s magic.

Conductor Franz-Xavier Roth

Conductor Franz-Xavier Roth

The Boston Symphony Orchestra concert for Thursday, January 4th was cancelled due to a large snowstorm, and the entire presentation moved to Sunday, January 7th at Five in the afternoon. It turned out to be, like Santa Cecilia in the fall, one of the best concerts of the year. Increasingly welcome guest conductor François-Xavier Roth led a tremendously compelling Beethoven Fifth Symphony, with supremely clear phrasing and unity of sections  (shades of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell), and forceful rhythmic articulation, in detail and on the large scale, building to a powerful unleashing of relief and joy in the Finale.

The Beethoven was preceded by an expressive, clearly phrased account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C. K. 467, with the excellent Benjamin Grosvenor at the keyboard; and before that Étienne Méhul’s alternately woozy and grand Overture to his opera The Amazons, extremely well played, with much brass and wind color—music which seemed to call, by contrast and very agreeably, for the classicism and run of C-Major to follow in the Mozart and Beethoven.

For his second BSO series, beginning Thursday, January 11, now at the usual 8 p.m., Roth led an admirably clear account of Webern’s complex and sensuous Passacaglia, Opus 1; an equally clear and able Bartók Piano Concerto No. 1, spikey and virtuosic, with soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard; and finally a quite amazing complete Stravinsky Firebird ballet. This was a sharp and dance-like Firebird, not a flowing and sensuous one, like Esa-Pekka Salonen’s some years ago with BSO. What was amazing is that Roth managed to achieve an overall effect with the piece as of a great poetic drama. Not so much that the ballet scenario was brought to life scene by scene. But rather, one sensed what seemed an endless array of characters and moods, a large canvas of human life (with incursions of the supernatural, of course).What enabled all this was Roth’s, and the players’, way of finding and projecting strong feeling, and endlessly varied feeling, passage by passage, seemingly bar by bar—fear, amazement, tenderness, restlessness, joy in the senses, playfulness, sobriety, and on and on.

Andris Nelsons achieved something like this effect of a large canvas of humanity in concerts back at the end of November and beginning of December, with Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. One followed the walk up and down the mountain, aware of the mists, the sunlight, the meadows, the ecstasy of the summit, the storm. But what was most remarkable was the sense the orchestra gave of pocket after pocket, byway after byway, of human feeling—warmth, a disposition toward lyricism, occasional fury. One was given, all in all, an encyclopedia of musical inventiveness and its psychological correlatives.

A week after Roth’s Firebird, on Thursday, January 18th, Nelsons led a powerfully effective Mahler Third Symphony. This huge, complex symphony is often called cosmic. There is variety here. The large first movement throbbing march lets in all sorts of folkloric songfulness and rich musical development and digression sometimes bordering on the shocking. The practice continues with the middle movement Tempo di Minuetto, Scherzando, and more. The slow, grand finale (Mahler marks it Empfunden—deeply felt) opens with a warm, all-embracing theme in the strings (weirdly reminiscent of “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places”), and proceeds eventually to an orgasmic ending with brass chorales and wild timpani. This symphony, however, does not offer the many, and varied, pockets of human feeling, suggesting a variety of human experience, that the Alpine Symphony and Firebird offered and Nelsons and Roth, respectively, found and mined. The great effect of the Mahler is to suggest the universal force—Dante in the Paradiso calls it Love—so ultimately did Mahler—the force that binds everything together and moves it forward. The orchestra put this work across thoroughly effectively, on the grand scale and in detail, aided admirably by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham singing Nietzsche’s poem “Midnight Song,” and by a children’s chorus and the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which continues to sound splendid, whole or in part, under director James Burton.

A week later, Thursday, January 25th, BSO Artistic Partner Thomas Adès  and the orchestra, with soloist Augustin Hadelich, found a world in the briefer space of the marvelous Ligeti Violin Concerto. Not so much a world of human feelings suggesting a varied human population and varied experience, but a world of artistic experiment and adventure. With Ligeti’s brilliant play with instrumental sounds, pitches, and rhythms, and Hadelich’s eloquence and strong engagement with the rest of the orchestra, doors of perception continually opened in different, sometimes stirringly contradictory, directions, as the piece went along.

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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