Opening Night at Tanglewood
Friday, July 3, 8:30 p.m.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine, conductor
Yefim Bronfman, piano
Symphony No. 6, Pathétique
Piano Concerto No. 1
What could be more appropriate for opening night at Tanglewood than two Tchaikovsky warhorses? His late Romantic idiom and imaginative affinity for broken heterosexual passion, cheapened to Romance by popular reception, makes his music ideal for performance under the stars, whether in the Hollywood Bowl or at Tanglewood. My first music teacher, an Australian disciple of Casals, who may therefore have known her own share of real passion, noting my enthusiasm for Tchaikovsky, tried bravely to instill contempt and loathing for his music through ridicule and constant exposure to Bach. I played the two- and three-part Inventions with enthusiasm; she urged be to seek out Casals’ Prades recordings of the Brandenburgs, hard to find back then. She won, to a degree, but I never quite gave up on Tchaikovsky, and now, many years later, I can look back on Tchaikovsky through the substantial lenses of Shostakovich and Prokofiev and see him as a latter-day Russian Bach, at least the father of Russian music, Mikhail Glinka having receded to a shadowy Saturnian role, at least in the West.
There is no doubt that the Sixth Symphony, appropriately called the Pathétique, holds an unassailable place as Tchaikovsky’s most accomplished, most personal, and greatest symphonic achievement. Unlike the Fourth, which James Levine and the BSO performed so brilliantly at Tanglewood two seasons ago, it needs no case to be made for it, as much as that piano teacher of mine might have ridiculed the repetitious passages in the third movement. Levine approached the Sixth with a similar concentration on clarity of texture and structure, but, in my opinion, with considerably less success. As meticulous and respectful as was his treatment of the score and its transitions and inner voices, it didn’t quite amount to a real performance, not even a dress rehearsal. It seemed cool and careful, and it left me cold. It was really an exercise for Levine and this orchestra he keeps fussing over—an exercise in how perfectly the balance of the woodwinds and brass could come through, as well as the dissonant progressions in transitional passages, and above all how much he could drag out the slowest passages without letting them go flabby. I love Bruckner, but only if he wrote the notes himself. I admired all these details, truly, and they were immaculately executed, except for a few disasters in the horns, but orchestra and conductor must assimilate all this, before it can become truly musical. The first movement was most egregiously marred by Levine’s fussiness. The second and the third were much better, and there wasn’t anything to fault in the infinitely sad finale, except that it wasn’t moving—emotionally, I mean.
The slow introduction to the first movement was very slow indeed, but Levine maintained a wonderful sense of shape and of a building-up through the repeated phrases. Later, Brucknerian qualities emerged in the exceedingly long pause before the second subject in the exposition. The agitated outburst in the development was especially successful, but, as the broad themes re-emerged, we returned to the world of Bruckner, especially in the coda. The second movement benefitted from a delightful Mozartian clarity, lightness, and bounce in the rhythm. The third movement march was tight, and had a pleasing energetic snap to its rhythm, although I think there are other dimensions to it—an horrific imperial arrogance—which were left untouched in Levine’s interpretation. Most attractive, and almost seductive, or moving, were the warm sonorities of the Adagio Lamentoso. The harmony and color of the brass chords before the appearance of the second subject in the major was truly wonderful, then the pause, the gong, and the choir of trombones and tuba—all wonderfully executed, but still no more than an exercise. The vast majority of the audience felt differently. Each movement was greeted with enthusiastic, lengthy applause, and at the end the symphony received a wild ovation—entirely undeservedly, I thought.
The First Piano Concerto, a far inferior work, was entirely another story. Yefim Bronfman’s sensitivity and fire brought the performance into full life most magnificently. This was surely one of the very great, unforgettable performances at Tanglewood, or anywhere else. At its conclusion the audience went wild, and I along with the rest. Yefim Bronfman, I believe, is one of those legendary musicians who stand monumentally above most others, and define the best qualities of music-making in the present day. There is no need to wax nostalgic over Rubenstein or Horowitz; Bronfman is a far more interesting musician and personality. Whether he is playing Schubert chamber music of the greatest substance and subtlety or some flawed warhorse like Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, his amazing technique, acute perception, and transcendent good taste fulfill the best and raise the weaker almost to the same level. In this way he can commit himself fully to the flashier passages, never quite leaving his persona of consummate virtuoso, but always penetrating to a truly musical marrow at the core of all the pretty notes. The kid brother of Tchaikovsky’s teacher, Anton Rubenstein, Nikolai Grigorievich, was not entirely wrong when he dismissed the concerto as bad and vulgar. If scrutinized analytically, it is clear that it is far from the composer’s best work, but it is one of the most popular pieces in the repertory, and I can only bless it for that. Played really well, it transcends its own limitations, and one has to love it. This night, Bronfman and a Levine who was more inspired than in the symphony played it much, much better than well.
The tight ensemble, focused color and balance of the orchestra served the work brilliantly, especially in the passages in which piano passagework supports a melody in the woodwinds. Bronfman, Levine, and the orchestra achieved perfect balances in these, as well as a feeling of spontaneity. Bronfman commands a vast range of weight and color and shifts effortlessly among them. As Bronfman and Levine played them, the opening bars of the first movement moved urgently along without relinquishing the lofty equilibrium inherent in the music. In his descending figures Bronfman encompassed a vast range of color and expression, from his delicate ppp at the top to his rich chords at the bottom. The members of the orchestra seemed to be as transfixed by the first movement cadenza as the audience. The slower, second subject in the major was a marvel of nuance and insight. There were amazing details throughout the performance, for example, in the first bars of the second movement, Elizabeth Rowe’s exquisite phrasing and tone in the flute above delicate ppp pizzicato in the strings in the slow movement, and the odd, fascinating passage in syncopated dotted rhythms, which benefitted immensely from being executed with neat rhythm and ensemble.
This was a deeply moving performance, not only because Bronfman and Levine got to the core of a work which is widely loved for no insignificant reason, but also because artistry of this level is a moving thing in itself.