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MusicThe Berkshire Review in Boston

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Schumann and Harbison under Masur and Levine

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John Harbison, Composer
John Harbison, Composer

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Schumann and Harbison

November 18, 2010: Kurt Masur conducting; Nelson Freire, piano
November 30: James Levine conducting
December 2: James Levine conducting; Nicolaj Znaider, violin

In recent weeks the Boston Symphony Orchestra has celebrated the 200th anniversary of Robert Schumann’s birth with performances of the four Symphonies and the Piano Concerto, with mixed, eventually quite good, results. The first set of concerts, led by Kurt Masur, presented the First and Fourth symphonies. Masur has had a great career in Leipzig, New York, and around the world, with remarkable performances and recordings. But here the Schumann First, or “Spring,” Symphony came across charmless and perfunctory, wanting for bounce, life, and sunniness, which is the piece’s real character. The great Fourth Symphony in D-Minor, an extended phantasy where movements blur together, came off better, but lacked for the full drama and passion of this piece. The program included the Piano Concerto, featuring Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire, who is an interesting and distinctive musician. On this occasion he produced a beautiful sound and made beautiful phrases, but under-played the piece, so to speak. It just did not come across the stage and arrest the listener, not like Maurizio Pollini’s performance with Levine here a couple of years ago.

The Schumann celebration fared much better with Levine back for the next two concert series. The first-night performance of the Third Symphony, the “Rhenish,” did not sit well with some local critics. I heard the final performance, several days later, and for me it was the highpoint of the whole Schumann series. This great symphony, beginning in E-Flat-Major in three-quarter time, is clearly some kind of tribute to and transformation of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. Schumann’s long, grand opening theme can be heard as an off-the-beat reworking of Beethoven’s opening theme (without the sublime dissonance at the end of Beethoven’s first phrase). The Rhenish takes the Eroica’s heroic classicism in the direction of scenic evocation — peasant life along the Rhine, Cologne Cathedral — and also in the direction of turbulent, uncertain romantic feelings that make their own formal digressions, or find their own forms. One can hear a lot of Wagner in this work, and Brahms at his most Romantic. Levine conjured a big, bass-heavy, “Germanic” sound, with throbbing strings — brass flashing out brilliantly, or intoning with mystery and solemnity in the slow fourth movement, suggestive of the Cathedral interior. This was not a “crisp” performance, which can work well in a different way. Levine went for the long phrase, the long-term build-up and subsidence, and the strong moods — including vitality and joy — of German Romanticism. I was fully convinced.

After intermission, the orchestra turned to John Harbison’s Symphony No. 1, continuing the series that began in October with No. 3. The Harbison First is very different from the inward Third. It begins with loud repeated chords that the composer has likened to a forge, and over the course of the symphony there is a great deal of what one might call machine-age rhythm — the rousing finale has this character altogether. Yet there is great variety, with a tendency to juxtapose very different kinds of music abruptly. The opening “forge” motive is succeeded by plangent music for woodwind choir. Later in the movement, suspended harmonies in the strings reminded me briefly of Bernard Herrmann’s music for the Hitchcock film North by Northwest, and massed horn figures, of Vertigo. There is a sense about the whole piece of a first-time symphonist staking his claim to write a comprehensive “twentieth-century American” work that tries out and puts together many things. And everything sounds fresh, and the mix works. The long, interesting third movement, called “Paesaggio” (“Landscape”), projects a very subjective landscape indeed and linked to the mood of the Schumann. Levine ended the program, presumably to draw out this mood further, with the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. It was played with great precision and superb pacing, but, for me, lacked a certain mystery and all-out irrationality. I don’t particularly like continuing the great Prelude with the final scene of the opera — here wordless, voiceless. After the intensity of the Harbison and the Schumann before, the Wagner seemed a bit of a bon-bon.

The second Levine concert opened with Mozart’s Violin Concerto in G, K. 216, a work seeming at first blush from another world than that of Schumann or Harbison. The nineteen-year-old Mozart is constantly inventive here, providing a series of marvelous discrete musical episodes, notably in the finale with its abrupt change of time signature at one point — a little like the Harbison Symphony No. 1, we might realize, this variety and bravura. Mozart’s slow movement projects a strong mood and is very moving — such music didn’t begin with Schumann, or Beethoven. Violinist Nicolaj Znaider gave a full-blooded, engaged, and musically shrewd account, fully in sympathy with Levine and the large string orchestra (plus pairs of oboes — displaced by flutes in the Adagio — and French horns). Znaider and Levine showed good eighteenth-century taste and sense. Beyond that, they were passionate and soulful and relished big sounds. Why be precious with such music? Mozart would have liked this.

The orchestra proceeded to the Harbison Symphony No. 2 and, after intermission, the Schumann Second Symphony. This Harbison is in four movements played without break, titled “Dawn,” “Daylight,” “Dusk,” and “Darkness.” Despite some blazing speed and brightness in “Daylight,” the work seems all of a piece, interior, moody, and dreamlike, not a journey through the times of day, but half-memories all tied to and grounded in the turbulent and indeed dark final (and longest) movement. The piece overall has a dominant string sound, quite different from the extraverted, orchestrally colorful Symphony No. 1, or the subtler Symphony No. 3 with its chamber-music-like pairings of standard orchestra instruments, or sections, with exotic percussion. Still, early in the piece comes a wonderful contrapuntal episode for woodwinds, and towards the end a great violent build-up with brass. Quite cathartic.

The Schumann C-Major Symphony is a joyful piece, with its high energy and repeated brass fanfares over the course of the whole work — in the main a contrast to the Harbison except for the “Daylight” material there. The Schumann’s Andante espressivo is a great slow movement, with its indeed expressive ascending solo wind phrases, bringing to mind Italian opera of the period, or Mozart’s opera. Levine’s scherzo was, for me, a bit too skittering and Mendelssohn-like — I prefer it a shade slower and with more weight to the sixteenth notes, suggesting a certain obsessive insanity. But in general this was a splendid, committed performance, finding all the genius and drama in the symphony, making it seem better than one had remembered.

I wish Levine could have given us a whole Schumann cycle this fall. And surely everyone looks forward to the continuation next season of the Harbison series, involving some singers and concluding with the premiere of a new symphony. This material is being splendidly presented. It is highly original and does not make compromises, and yet it is work the audience for Mozart and Schumann and Wagner can awaken itself to (which is not to say that some of us do not look forward to more Schönberg and Carter from Levine and the BSO as well).

Charles Warren

About 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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