If I tell you here is the side of Brahms which kept a score of Parsifal open on his piano, I think we are more than halfway to understanding what Daniel Barenboim has tried to do with this composer and now achieves more fully and authentically than in his Chicago Symphony cycle recorded for Erato several decades ago. The Staatskapelle Berlin has always been a Brahms orchestra of the old school, as Otmar Suitner’s 1984 digital cycle for Berlin Classics, recorded in the Lukaskirche, wonderfully demonstrated, but Barenboim has maintained and encouraged its nutty/creamy sonority to new levels of evocative lushness and subtle woodwind tone coloration. He doesn’t aim to compete for brilliance with the Berlin Philharmonic. Indeed, the sound here boasts a theatrical darkness and elision, first, foremost and nearly always. I imagine this still resembles the burnished sonority my German father heard in Berlin before the First World War.
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.
As collectors know, exploring outside the basic repertory is often both frustrating and rewarding. The search for significant neglected music, one learns early, is not so easy as it appears. Many worthy pieces one falls in love with turn out to be partial works of genius, with uninspired moments we choose to forgive, defects of length and proportion, or performing requirements condemning them to obscurity.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra started the new year well with two programs under the direction of guest conductor François-Xavier Roth, who hails now from Cologne and is very active in Europe, much sought after. Conducting without baton, vigorous and engaged, Roth holds the players’ attention and gets what he wants. Orchestra and audience alike feel caught up in an unusually tense and purposeful address to the music at hand.
As the Bard Music Festival has sailed through the great names in European and American music over the past twenty-five years—although there are some people who don't like Elgar, Liszt, or Wagner, and some who doubt Saint-Saëns' or Sibelius' importance (if they attended the Festival they left with their minds changed)—the focal points of the festival have been generally unchallenged. This year, with Carlos Chávez, the first composer from south of the border, there has been more debate. Many attendees—and especially non-attendees—questioned the worthiness of Carlos Chávez as a subject. He is largely forgotten, and many of those who do remember him, do not think of him kindly. Even Leon Botstein himself expressed a critical attitude towards Chávez,
It's hard to recall a time when Stravinsky's music carried with it the suggestion of impossible modernism. But it did—once. The appearance of Petrouchka on TV in 1960 made the viewer feel quite daring, I remember. It was "dissonant.” And the Rite of Spring, with all those purpose-led insect lives and braying jurassic fossils was just plain intimidating. Little did we know then that dinosaurs were merely large chickens and Stravinsky himself, if not exactly a pussycat, then about as threatening as a Russian wolfhound on Stupid Pet Tricks.
Although the three works, Rite of Spring, Company B and Piazzolla Caldera that made up the evening are very different in style and tone, they are equally compelling.
I couldn’t have been more eager to hear Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on their return visit to Boston, part of an American tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of the “Peaceful Revolution” that began in Leipzig in October 1989 and a month later led to the fall of the Berlin wall. Chailly continues to be one of most significant and enriching conductors of our time, and it was profoundly frustrating that, in January of 2012, heart problems prevented him from making his long overdue BSO debut (conducting, among other things, Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps). This cancellation also put him out of the running as a possible replacement for James Levine as BSO music director. There was no way the BSO would risk hiring another music director with health problems. And yet, apparently recovered, here he was in Boston.