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Stravinsky, Rakhmaninov and Shostakovich: Boston Symphony Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko (guest conductor), Boston, 10.10.2009 (KH)

Stravinsky, Scherzo fantastique, Opus 3

Rakhmaninov, Isle of the Dead, Opus 29

Shostakovich, Symphony № 10 in E minor, Opus 93 

To start with, this program was a surprise; for in the BSO’s brochure from this past summer, the guest conductor on these concerts was to be Daniele Gatti (whom I had remembered conducting a very fine Shostakovich Fifth Symphony at Symphony, in March of 2008). The program was to have been the Brahms Third, a suite from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, and (what I was particularly keen to hear live in the hall) Hindemith’s Konzertmusik Opus 50 for strings & brass.

That was long ago, and when I was considering the concert’s program this week, I hardly batted an eye, for I saw the Shostakovich Tenth, and of course I should have selected this concert to attend. The program and the performance were both of such excellence, that I hardly have any complaint for the missing Hindemith. An acquaintance of mine, a delicate lady who has been a long-standing patron of the orchestra, felt at first that a rug had been out from under her, with the evaporation of Brahms; but at the last — but let me save that for later.

Another surprise was seeing not one but three harps on stage, as needed for the Stravinsky. A sight which made me smile, as only the week before the orchestra played a concert honoring retired harpist Ann Hobson Pilot.

In Conversations with Igor Stravinsky (compiled with the assistance of Robert Craft, and published in 1959), the composer denied any pre-compositional connection between his Scherzo fantastique, and Maeterlinck’s essay, La Vie des abeilles (published in May, 1901). In fact, Stravinsky took great pains to claim that the bees were “a choreographer’s idea”; and to place Maeterlinck somehow in the wrong:

One morning in Morges I received a startling letter from him, accusing me of intent to cheat and defraud. My Scherzo had been titled Les Abeilles — anyone’s title, after all — and made the subject of a ballet then performing at the Paris Grand Opera (1917). Les Abeilles was unauthorized by me and, of course, I had not seen it; but Maeterlinck’s name was mentioned in the program. The affair was settled, and, finally, some bad literature about bees was published on the fly-leaf of the score, to satisfy my publisher, who thought a “story” would help to sell the music. 

The composer truly doth protest too much. This disingenuous dog-&-pony show notwithstanding, a surviving letter which Stravinsky wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov while the composition was in progress reveals a detailed plan of musical correspondence to literary episode, that is at once a clever adaptation of the principle of the tone-poem, and a clear harbinger of such uncanny musical detail in the later mastery of The Firebird.

Stravinsky set to work on this Scherzo soon after completing his Symphony № 1 in E-flat, Opus 1. The Symphony was a long-labored student effort, compositionally studious, and practically nondescript of musical character — most unusual for Stravinsky. The Scherzo is a complete musical make-over: the orchestration is masterly, specific, and expertly colored, the octatonic scale makes a cameo appearance, and the musical material itself is remarkably light of tread.

Indeed, Petrenko and the BSO were as one, and they flew. The Scherzo bristled with energy — making the composer’s own recording, from December 1962 in Toronto (when, admittedly, the composer was in his eightieth year, and past needing to prove anything) feel a bit easygoing in comparison. The velocity of the performance was bewitching; and the orchestra followed the guest conductor unerringly in the score’s occasional turn-on-a-dime metrical quirks (only a hint of the rhythmical journey on which Stravinsky would later embark). An especially witty touch was having the violins, in some low-register, rapid figuration near the end, dig in with a buzzing timbre playfully suggestive of the piece’s literary origins.

There’s some history in Boston with the stirring and somber Isle of the Dead; the first Boston Symphony performances were led by the composer himself, on 17 & 18 December 1909. Strange to say, this past weekend is the first time the band have played it at Symphony Hall since 1945. The power of Petrenko’s interpretation of the piece has given Boston reason to rue that neglect. (It is a curiosity that, although the Stravinsky and Shostakovich were overall much ‘brighter’ and louder pieces, each of those scores have the traditional compliment of four horns; where Rakhmaninov’s score requires six.)

So much of Rakhmaninov’s music is noted for his rich harmonies, and their surging restlessness (the sequences which are always headed somewhere else), that the Isle of the Dead comes as something of a surprise, so much of it an immovable alternation between two chords (representing the steady oar-strokes of the long-haired boatman in Böcklin’s painting). The subtlety with which Rakhmaninov builds a slow crescendo through the first eight pages with minimal but masterly adjustments in instrumentation, is breathtaking; and the performance on Saturday gave the aforementioned lady concertgoer the creeps, quite intensely. Spellbinding.

The Stravinsky had been enchanting, and the Rakhmaninov ravishing. But the Shostakovich was outright thrilling. The opening Moderato begins with a hush in the unison low strings; clarinetist Bill Hudgins was the first wind to appear, with a solo of heart-stopping purity (p semplice). When the movement builds to its first fortissimo, the foreground is the four unison horns, ringing high; Petrenko brought out a wonderful detail in the accompanying chords in the rest of the brass and timpani, a rapid crescendo before releasing the chord, which was only one of many subtle riches discovered in the piece. Principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe shone in the warmth of her tone in a solo in the breathy lower octave, accompanied by pizzicato strings. The bassoon section (including a richly sepulchral contrabassoon played by Gregg Henegar) initiated the development with moody echoes both of the clarinet solo theme, and the opening statement of the bassi.

The brass were magnificent throughout, but deserve special mention for the menacing whirlwind of the second movement, whose Allegro marking seems an ironic understatement. (Also ironic, in that the Italian word means “cheerful.”) Fearless and brilliant, the entire orchestra, in this.

Petrenko infused the beginning of the third-movement Allegretto with a tentative nonchalance, whose character contrasted nicely not only with the most earnest fortissimo restatement of this material mid-way through the movement, but with the quiet tension of the keening bassi opening of the Andante introduction to the last movement. Petrenko succeeded excellently in making that Andante, not a ‘dead-stop’ after the devil’s-gopak second movement, and the frozen carousel of the third, but a resumption of the intensity of the first. If sound were light, the orchestra had gleamed through the dizzying pace of the ensuing Allegro. Indeed, after Shostakovich’s reintroduction of material from the Andante (but at the undercurrent Allegro pace), Petrenko pressed for a shade more brilliance in tempo, and the band accommodated him by pouring it on.

The performances this weekend and last, I shall take as an earnest of a terrific season to come. The darkness is past, Boston, and days of glory are upon us. When I chatted with my acquaintance (as I was saying) about Petrenko and the BSO, at first she had been disappointed at the change in program. But then her eyes shone as she said, “They were marvelous.” 

Karl Henning

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