The job of a critic has two elements: the first is to report the facts of a performance: what was played, by whom, and what the music and performance were like in objective terms, as far as possible (never fully successful); and the second is to offer some judgments about the quality of both music and performance. This second part is fraught with difficulties: judgments are necessarily subjective, and yet in order for them to be useful to the reader, they need to be justified in terms of the values upon which they are based, especially since the critic is fully aware that his/her long-held prejudices (euphemistically called convictions) are not necessarily shared by readers.
Writing here recently about last season at the Boston Symphony, I had recourse more than once to the phrase “just notes going by” in response to Andris-Nelsons-led performances that I did not like (I did praise a number of performances as well). I am happy to say that I think no one would say “just notes going by” about the recent, September 28th concert which opened the orchestra’s subscription series for 2017-2018. First, Nelsons and the orchestra and soloist Paul Lewis presented a definite view of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G-major, Opus 58; they had something to say with it. And the large Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 (“The Year 1905”) which followed, seemed to come into its own and express itself as fully as one could imagine.
In line with the excellent work I have heard at Tanglewood, was the Fellows’ vocal concert. Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins was masterfully led by mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, Nuno Coelho, conductor, with Nicholas Muni as director. Mr. Muni’s direction was not fussy, and it tapped into the knife-edged nature of the show without excess. Ms. Barron gave a masterful performance. Not only was her voice beguiling in every way, she moved decisively, and somehow naturally, through the opera. Each of her skills contributed to a larger convincing performance in this ice-cold piece.
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.
The perfect word to describe Andris Nelsons’ conducting is “exciting.” He elicits spectacular playing from the Boston Symphony and knows how to mold the sound of the orchestra to his taste. The strings now sound rich, deep, and solid rather than airy, transparent and elegant, as was their traditional, French–flavored style. This works well in a German-Russian program; I am curious to hear what they (Nelsons and the orchestra) will do with canonical French material such as the orchestral works of Ravel.
Along with the retirement of the Tokyo String Quartet, the departure of David Finckel from the Emerson Quartet has been one of the most discussed events in the world of chamber music over the past eighteen months or so. As people who have heard their concerts know, both David Finckel and the Emerson Quartet, now with the British cellist, Paul Watkins, in place, are as rich as ever in their contributions to our well-being as humans. Wu Han and David Finckel spoke with me just today about their new post-Emerson life, which allows David to travel and play more regularly with Wu Han as a duo and as a trio with Emerson violinist Philip Setzer, who will join them at the venerable South Mountain Concerts on Sunday, September 29, 2013. They will play Beethoven Op. 1, No. 2, Shostakovich’s Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67, and Dvořák’s Trio in E Minor, Op. 90, the “Dumky.”
I hope you enjoy our conversation about their past, present, and future as much as I did.
On looking over this program of familiar works for cello and piano, the last thing one would call it is challenging. Yet, this past Sunday evening, David Finckel and Wu Han made it into something extremely challenging and enlightening. The duo — a husband-wife team, as is well-known — put so much feeling and energy into each piece that each became a world unto itself, formed by such radically different personalities, that it seemed miraculous that the players could make the transition from one to the other within a single evening. As for listening to such performances, I found myself so deeply immersed in these varied planets, that the journey between them seemed vast. Finckel and Wu Han approached them as differing thought processes in different languages.