Wow, has it really been almost two years since we last sat in Symphony Hall watching a live BSO performance? But it was for more than that, we were delighted to be there Thursday: Andris Nelsons and the kitchen crew served up a good serving of new, old and high protein produce; between the two, the formidable Hilary Hahn dispensed the Leaner Mozart. The evening did not disappoint, at least not very much.
After a few New Years welcome words (“I don’t talk much here, I just do that [moves his hand up and down and side to side]”And the wish that we could say goodbye to it all soon,” said Nelsons, directing the delayed premiere of Heinz Karl (“HK”) Gruber Short stories of the Vienna Woods, (Kurzgeschichten aus dem Wienerwald), a sequel from his 2014 opera Tales from the Vienna Woods (Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald). The link with the famous waltz of the same name by Johann Strauss Jr. is indirect: the opera is based (by means of a libretto by Michael Sturminger) on a 1931 play by the Austro-Hungarian author of Croatian origin Ödön von Horváth (can this name was coined? Horváth is the Hungarian word for a Croatian!). In his day, Horváth was a popular stage and page populist, mentioned in the same sentence as Bertolt Brecht (for more on all of this, on Gruber, and on the musical context of the sequel, we highly recommend see Robert Kirzinger’s book (note here). The title of his piece is in turn taken from Strauss op. 325, although the plot revolves mainly around the domestic activities of a bourgeois Viennese family. The only plot detail that arguably matters to listeners in the sequel is the use of a honky-tonk piano to represent a character practicing a waltz – badly.
the Short stories The sequel, jointly commissioned by BSO and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Nelsons’ other concert, consists of seven numbers, which Gruber says could be played as a mix-and-match as long as nos. 1 and 7 were first and last; this performance was ours. 1, 2, 4 and 7. The first of them, Introduction and Lied von der Wachau, opens with a powerful breath of the immense orchestra, in fact a little evocative of Weill, before settling more lyrically, from which the song (originally a soprano aria) emerges, posed here slyly for trumpet muted both literally and figuratively, so delicately one tends to hear it — props here at Thomas Siders for the delightful solo. The tempi waltz begins to stir. The second movement, Walzer-Splitter (Exploded waltzes) also crashes, all black in the brass, but slightly out of whack, a mixture of heavy artillery and Loony Tunes. It settles in too, but to a series of crescendi with impressive layered sectional polyphony, and a few tender moments counterbalanced by sinister accompaniments. The next movement performed, Wie im Fluge (In a flash) begins by invoking a sort of tonal Webern soundscape, but turns to a modern 1920-30s urban aesthetic, jazzy and big band, until the piano definitely not Jazzbo-Jones comes in at the end. The piano picks up where it left off, so to speak, like the finale of the suite, Poka infernal, begins, a nightmare carnival with the oompahs of Nino Rota and a frantic rush for a long raspberry. The music revisits the opening breath of the suite (and the opera), and no one, it seems, has lived happily ever after. The performance gave every indication of perfection, and as almost always with Gruber, it was raucous theatrical fun. Well-deserved reminders were given, alongside Siders and solo cellist Blaise Dejardin, to the hyperactive percussion section.
A work like Tales, and by extension Short stories, doesn’t come on a blank cultural slate, of course. The collapse of bourgeois society before the First World War by means of demonic or manic waltzes was Ravel’s most famous. The waltz. Without reading Horváth’s play or Sturminger’s libretto, it is difficult to gauge how Gruber’s angle differs, except to note that the play is set a generation after the war and therefore inevitably portrays the continued dissolution of old social certainties. and the rigidities of the class structure. It must be assumed that Gruber’s goal is not entirely historical and that a reference is warranted to resuming or continuing this process today, with an outcome to be determined. Where Gruber’s point of view differs markedly from Ravel’s is in taking this historical knowledge for granted and showing a fractured world through a shattered window,
A much more serene world materialized when the power tools were taken away for the craft pleasures of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.5 in A major, K. 219. The year 1775 back in Salzburg was a busy one. for Mozart, although writing the last four of his five violin concertos, all evidence so far suggests that he was working for himself, as no one has yet identified who else they might have been be written. The A major is perhaps the most popular of its ensemble, and it is certainly sublime in its subtlety and spirit. The first movement, for example, begins the usual orchestral exposure with a pretty stripped down tune including A major arpeggios (playfully compensating for the degrees of the scale on the downbeats). When the violin enters, it is with an unrelated passage from adagio (perhaps the inspiration for what Beethoven did in his Piano Concerto No. 1), followed by the “real” exhibition, with, depending on your point of view, a descent on the arpeggiated melody or the actual melody that the composer hid the first time (this is how we read it, since it appears that way in the recapitulation). Clever clogs, this Mozart. The movement also features vivid harmonic jerks associated with the second subject and early development, which Nelsons was careful to point out.
Hahn performed throughout with fiery sensibility, without trying to master the line and giving every nuance their due without too much refinement. One problem with Mozart’s concertos, if you want to call it that, is that they aren’t the most virtuoso pieces he has ever written, or even that he has written, and so soloists have to, so to speak, creating difficulties in the cadences, and Hahn duly came in charge of three of his own. That of the first movement had a thicker texture with double stops than the writing of the score, but perfectly in character. The slow movement (surprisingly Mozart was criticized for making it too sought after, so he wrote a substitute which is now listed as the Adagio K. 261) elicited a performance that was both smooth and orderly, using dynamics. soft to make important phrasing points. The collaboration between Hahn and Nelsons was most evident here as a truly joint creation. The cadence was long and complex by slow motion standards (and, let’s face it, slow motion cadences aren’t that common). The finale, a rondo with one of Mozart’s most famous arias at its head, and a delicious, nonchalant and indeed consequent licking of its tail, produced the most calisthenic music of the piece. Especially in the episodes (the third and most famous of which is “Turkish” music which gave the concerto as a whole its nickname) Hahn and the orchestra stepped up the welly and provided a harsher edge. Hahn’s cadence shifted brilliantly to the main theme, whose final appearance in the Nelsons coda provided the tiniest bit of a joke to send it on to its flippant, arpeggiated ending. Hahn compelled the thunderous applause from the busy hall with a encore, Bach’s Gigue from Partita No. 3 in E.
To anchor the evening, Nelsons Again Loaded For The Bear, exhibited the virtues of Prokofiev’s unsubtle but powerful Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 100, written in the space of a month in 1944. Among the principal symphonies of the Second World War (Shostakovich 7 and 8, Vaughan Williams 5, Barber 2 and Copland 3), that of Prokofiev seems on the surface to be the closest of the RVW, as it appears to offer a moral boost to the home front; it’s a more complex affair nonetheless, with plenty of roars and cries alongside anything that might be considered trivial, and as always, there was the overriding need to please the boss. In his opening Andante, Nelsons allowed his expansive main melody all the space and resonance, reveling in its pure sonority, his phrases rolling like fine brandy in the snifter. It seemed to those ears that Nelsons wanted to find an architectural approach to the symphony, as is done with Bruckner. We’re not sure this symphony fully supports this, but it certainly provides plenty of opportunities to build climaxes, of which Nelsons is a notable master. The last pages of this movement offer a challenge “at the top”: can we have an orchestra in a hall to make so much noise? Maybe not, but we’ll give this one high marks for effort.
The scherzo is sort of a centerpiece, propulsive and raw, heroic and curled up. The trio’s transition, with their howling clarinets (rendered shrill and brilliantly across the entire section), a slowed-down version of the main theme, grunts and clicks. Nelsons got the propulsion perfectly; the rest could have benefited from a little more tip. The slow movement, a beaming and prolonged vocals, highlights the strings like no other movement does, and Nelsons brings out the richness in them. The rhythmically punchy middle section, with its allusions to the theme of the first movement, gave ample scope to Nelsons’ climax construction. In this movement, it is particularly evident that Prokofiev, like Mahler, makes sure that the melodic and harmonic phrasing do not coincide, thus extending the drama to specific inflection points.
We sometimes hear the slow movement and the final almost caught attack, but Nelsons took a long break. The body of the movement, after a gentle introduction reminiscent of the theme of the first movement, is a rondo whose main theme is brimming with vigor and optimism, although most of the time Prokofiev’s dynamics keep it suppressed, until ‘it explodes in about four-fifths. . There is a big theme in the central episode, which comes back in color at the end, but the main problem for a conductor in this movement is to keep the middle from sagging when the momentum slows down. In view of this final climactic moment, Nelsons may not have taken enough risks with it, and as a result, one ends up with a vague unease about the quality of this symphony. It’s certainly popular, probably just behind the “Classical” Symphony in Prokofiev’s production. And with all the noise, it’s a crowd pleaser.