No sooner was Eugene Goossens knighted by the Queen of England for service to Australian music, than he wound up benighted and foolish in the hands of the immigration police. Arrested at Sydney airport for pornography in his luggage, Goossens found his international reputation shattered and life soon to end from a major fall from grace. At the time of his arrest in 1956, he was known throughout the world as a conductor, orchestra builder and composer. In a long career, starting out as a protege of Sir Thomas Beecham, Goossens had put the Rochester Philharmonic on the map, taken the Cincinnati Symphony to new heights, and made his mark as the most important performing musician in Australia, stewarding the Sydney Symphony to international prominence after the Second World War.
It’s good to have Brahms symphonies from the Boston Symphony once again. They sound right, with caveats. A full cycle hasn’t been a reliable tradition since Koussevitzky. Charles Munch recorded only three of the symphonies on LP in Boston. Erich Leinsdorf did produce as set, but Seiji Ozawa recorded merely the First in 1977 for DGG, and Bernard Haitink’s Philips CDs from the early nineties disappeared pretty much as soon as they were released. There were no BSO Brahms symphonies released by James Levine with the orchestra during his tenure. The Boston Symphony has always been a European-leaning ensemble, less “Hollywood” in sonority than the Philadelphia Orchestra and minimally “Broadway” in energy compared with the New York Philharmonic. Symphony Hall’s burnished acoustic, a byproduct of sonic archery from its cupids in alcoves, its high ceilings and a pliant wooden floor, is a conspirator in this and ideally suited for Brahms.
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.
Even the most independent of us can't hear everything one might like to. In New York, choices must be made, usually based on what one thinks is most important, and often enough what is important has nothing to do with music. Family obligations kept me away from Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, although he was in his prime repertory for his final US appearances with the orchestra, and sheer surfeit diluted my enthusiasm for Gergiev. He is not the only friend of Vladimir Putin's to be accused of spending too much time on the golf course, and it shows in his wayward performances. What I did manage to hear brought discovery in conductors of exceptional ability I hadn't heard before and some new music, as well as measures of excitement, admiration, and boredom.
It was a tease this time—opening with minimalist Boulez. But it was worth it. Anyone growing up past mid-century recalls an era when whole portions of the German symphonic experience were seeming property of the Berlin Philharmonic and its legendary conductor, Herbert von Karajan. Put a Berlin Philharmonic LP of Brahms, Strauss, Beethoven or Bruckner on the turntable, and the golden DGG logo virtually guaranteed this orchestra would sound richer, probe more deeply than any other and elicit sheer heft without parallel. No string or brass section would glow as beautifully or emit more power. If that didn't convey authority, as it surely did to anyone with good ears, Karajan's mesmeric space-commander hair, ascetic tunic and "visionary closed eyes" (interesting notion, that) encouraged along the way our notion of insights to be found within—most of them worthy and real.
After the stunning concert with Simon Rattle leading the Berliner Philharmoniker at Boston’s Symphony Hall—Pierre Boulez’s scintillating Éclat followed (without intermission) by Mahler’s black sheep Symphony No. 7—I couldn’t stop shaking. There’s a lot of good music in Boston, but this was different—on a whole other level. And the audience knew it, felt it. Wasn’t it just what we needed to hear after the bruising election? People were not only cheering but weeping and hugging each other.
Boston has had a very good music season since the first of the year. Notably, Andris Nelsons has established himself ever more fully as leader of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After a triumphant concert performance of Strauss’s Elektra in the fall, Nelsons came back with especially strong accounts of three large-scale symphonies: the Shostakovich Eighth in March, and the Bruckner Third and Mahler Ninth in April. All were brilliantly played by the orchestra, which seems to have accommodated itself to Nelsons very well.
There is nothing more cozy and comfortable in the symphonic canon than the harmless narcissism of Strauss’s “domestic” symphony, originally titled “My home. A symphonic portrait of myself and my family.” Just how tasteful it all is has been a subject of debate ever since 1903, of course. As Peter Ustinov famously said of the composer: “I knew I wouldn’t like his wallpaper.” As it turned out, he didn’t.