Romantic Stravinsky, Wagnerian Brahms: Andris Nelsons’ Boston Symphony Debut at Tanglewood

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Andris-Nelsons conducting the BSO atTanglewood. Photo Hillary Scott.
Andris-Nelsons conducting the BSO at Tanglewood. Photo Hillary Scott.

Tanglewood Music Festival
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, Conductor
Sunday July 15, 2012, Shed

Tanglewood Festival Chorus
John Oliver, Director

Stravinsky – Symphony of Psalms
Brahms – Symphony no. 2 in D major, op. 73

Do we live in a golden age of romantic conducting? Last summer I praised Christoph Eschenbach’s performance of Brahms Fourth Symphony for its vivid projection of every nuance, phrase-shape, and color, and last week I enthused about Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s high-tension drama in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Now comes Andris Nelsons, a potential future BSO music director, bringing his own brand of physical activism to the podium in order to micro-manage the details of Brahms’ Second Symphony and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Afterwards, as one enraptured audience member accurately pointed out, “He knew exactly what he wanted from each measure, and got it!” Compare this with James Levine’s comment on the conductor’s role in a performance (I’m paraphrasing): if you work the nuances out in rehearsal, you really do not need to do much more than show the beat. Of course, rehearsal time at Tanglewood is limited, what with three different programs to present every weekend; so Nelsons’ vividly demonstrative mimetics may be the most efficient way to birth a performance capable of reaching the back row of the Shed. This is Mr. Nelsons’ usual modus operandi (attested by You Tube videos) and it clearly delights both musicians and audiences.

Growing up during a time of less demonstrative maestros, I am struck by the current trend. Two of my early baton heroes were Pierre Monteux and George Szell, both of whom I saw only in their later years, when there is an obvious benefit to kinetic efficiency on the podium. (A third, Fritz Reiner, was reputed to be even more miniscule in his motions, though I never got to see him in concert.)(1) Monteux was known as the conductors’ conductor, and both novices and experienced maestros made the pilgrimage to his école (The Pierre Monteux School) in Hancock, Maine to learn how to put a finer point on their batons. His performances were characterized by rhythmic and textural clarity, subtle but wide-ranging colors, and minimal interference with the musicians. While coaching André Previn, he asked “Did you think the orchestra was playing well? … So did I. Next time don’t interfere with them.” I saw and heard Monteux lead Beethoven’s Ninth at Tanglewood in August, 1960. The somewhat chubby 85-year old conductor perched on a stool, and even from the seventh row, I was unable to see more than a slight pulsation of his elbows, so small were his gestures; yet all 200 plus performers onstage had their eyes firmly fixed upon him, and he commanded an extraordinary performance of absolute lucidity and maximal structural power.

Szell was tall and lean and always conducted on his feet, but his approach was similarly economical, and he was an exponent of lucid detail and cogent structural rhetoric. He eschewed overstatement, worshipped the score, and focused his attention on orchestral discipline and clarity of expression. Music emerged with a large structural symmetry that made for a long build-up of tension and release achieved through rhythm and articulation rather than an enlarged dynamic or coloristic palette.

This contrast in performing styles could be described as romantic versus classical. The classical “school” was in ascendance in the wake of the spectacular success of Toscanini in the early 20th century, but figures such as Monteux (and his French colleagues Munch, Paray, Martinon, Leibowitz, and even Boulez) came to their approach through their own national traditions. Other influences on twentieth-century performance classicism have been the revival of earlier music and the search for historically more appropriate performing styles (a big factor for Szell, who shaped the Cleveland Orchestra as the ideal Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven ensemble), and along with that, the development of neo-classicism as a compositional style, the leading figure of which was, of course, Stravinsky.

Stravinsky conducting.
Stravinsky conducting.

Which brings us to the performance of Symphony of Psalms. There has recently been some controversy over the value of Stravinsky’s legacy as a conductor leading recordings of his own works. Some have criticized his technique — after all, he came to the podium later in life. Others have questioned the notion of a performance that “authoritatively” represents a composer’s intentions. Stravinsky recorded something more than once (there are four commercially recorded performances of Le Sacre du Printemps spread over a period of thirty-one years); each one was significantly different. That raises the question: “Will the real Igor please stand up?”

The film documenting Stravinsky’s recording of Symphony of Psalms with the CBC Orchestra (VAI DVD 4290) confirms, however, the impression that his approach was to render the rhythmic character of the score without deviations from the notated tempo and time. “Don’t make an allargando” he asks at a different recording session. Don’t change tempo, broaden, make pauses; don’t tamper with the basic pulse, which is sacrosanct. Bring out every accent and point of emphasis, and maintain absolutely clear articulation. Stravinsky was in rebellion against romantic performing styles, including the wide range of liberties taken by performers of his generation. This was not just a quirk of his old age, when he railed against “interpretation.” In his earlier career, he fell in love with mechanical player pianos and dreamed of having his compositions performed by them. His great wedding cantata, known as Les Noces, (to be performed by the TMC Orchestra and Charles Dutoit on July 30 — not to be missed!) was originally conceived as being scored for four player pianos. The decision to use live players was a concession to practicality, but the performers should never lose sight of that original conception.

If there are two schools of thought about playing Stravinsky, we might decide to call them, reductively, the “vivid” and the “austere,” or alternately, the “Russian romantic” and the “French modern” approaches. Nelsons, a Latvian, is located (in conducting geography) somewhere between Russia and Scandanavia, which form distinctly different schools. His colleague, Esa-Pekka Salonen, is a very distinguished Stravinskian who I feel exemplifies the latter approach, while Valery Gergiev is an icon of the former. Nelsons’ performance of Symphony of Psalms was somewhere south or west of both of these (toward German territory). It was beautifully balanced in sound, with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus providing lush, vivid vocal sonorities that projected well over the work’s rather austere and very characteristic orchestral color (which lacks upper strings and clarinets but includes two pianos and harp along with other winds and brass). His approach to the first two movements was clear and straight-forward, capturing the drama inherent in the score, including the somewhat abstract and complex counterpoint of the second movement (Stravinsky’s “upside-down pyramid of fugues”).

The third movement is the longest, and in many ways the heart of the score; part of it was composed before the other movements. It sets Psalm 150, which is popular with composers because it calls upon worshippers to make a music of many voices and instruments as praise unto the Lord. This is usually taken as license to unleash a bacchanale of color and rhythm (even by the early baroque masters), but Stravinsky opts for an original if not contrarian response: he sets the text in slow, sustained, even static harmonies alternating with rather dry, pointed rhythmic chanting. The static music predominates and constitutes a very prolonged final section that sets most of the text, including the enumeration of trumpet, timbrel, choir, strings, organ, and cymbals as the appropriate sounds for praise. Not only does Stravinsky eschew illustration, he renders a reading of the Latin text that is hushed and ritualistic, quiet and full of awe despite the oxymoronic content. It is very beautiful and affecting, but in a way that takes us beyond the realm of personal expression. In a wonderfully paradoxical feat Stravinsky turns the concert hall into a sacred space, and it seems a terrible shame to conclude such a work with the clamor of applause and the demonstration of public approval instead of a lasting and meditative silence.

Nelsons’ performance won plenty of approval, but in a way that I consider a bit non-Stravinskian. In the faster sections of this movement he opted for a rhythmic pulse that was slightly slower and more emphatic than the score indicates; and in the already drawn-out last section, he seemed to pull the tempo back more and more, as if the singers were being gradually drawn into some kind of collective trance; it felt like a moment from the end of Parsifal. Rather than an abstract voice of the Psalmist issuing directives, as Stravinsky intended, these performing decisions made the singers seem like characters in a drama.(2) As effective as it was, I feel it ultimately misrepresented the composer’s basic gesture. This is of concern; whatever authority his recordings have can be questioned or ignored as performing fashions and audience needs evolve. But I hope that other performers will recognize and continue to strive for the uniquely austere spirit of Stravinsky’s liturgical music in general and this piece in particular.

Brahms conducting, by Willy von Beckerath.
Brahms conducting, by Willy von Beckerath.

Not having made any significant recordings, (3) Brahms’ spirit and intentions are perhaps more open to interpretation, and the validity of Nelsons’ conception cannot be questioned; but it can be categorized. As indicated earlier, he took an extremely detailed view of the work, and exercised effective control over a constantly fluctuating flow of pulse and meter. Brahms built some of this into his structures, with displaced downbeats and meter changes giving the feeling that the rhythmic and emotional impulses are constantly subject to interruption and disruption. This is immediately clear at the beginning, where, after 32 bars, the idyllic, pastoral opening fades into a tympani roll and a rather dour trombone chorale emerges from the depths, reminding us of the snake in the grass and the underworld beneath our feet in the story of Orpheus and Euridice. Another memorable disruption occurs shortly before the blazingly triumphant finale when the propulsive marching rhythm suddenly yields to a vacillating figure of six beats, as if the Dionysian marchers suddenly got cold feet or needed a breather.

The point here is that Brahms composed such moments right into the score. There are two ways to deal with this: play straight and let the composition make its own points, or help the music by slowing down, exaggerating the dynamics, off-setting such passages with extra pauses, etc. Nelsons chose the latter course. The danger is that the long line and structural plan can be obscured by too many precious details. This is what happened when Seiji Ozawa conducted this symphony (which I gather was a favorite of his). Every phrase received a completely polished shape, like a self-contained little gem. This entire carefully constructed large-scale classical edifice, perhaps the most beautifully balanced symphonic statement since Beethoven, crumbled into a heap of lovely but ultimately tiresome little moments. That did not happen under Nelsons; he kept one eye on the structure and prevented the forward motion from stalling out. The music might teeter on the edge of that possibility, but the players were kept very alert to the chance of restarting their engines at any moment. The effect of all this tinkering and spinning of the musical points was to generate a Wagnerian atmosphere, portentous, at times deliriously lyrical or full of dire threats, in short, theatrical and ineluctable. At times, I wished for a more straightforward presentation, thinking perhaps of that older generation of classicist conductors.

On the other hand, the last two movements were quite straightforward, and the finale had a refreshing lightness and propulsion that it needs but does not always receive. There was no relenting on tempo at the end; in fact there seemed to be a shift into a slightly higher gear, which showed the brass section no mercy; but they rose to the occasion (the tiny glitch here and there just added to the excitement) and induced a cascade of applause that could not wait until the final cut-off. Despite his habit of interjecting melancholia into his musical discourses, here Brahms restrained himself and granted his audience the gift of being able to depart in a state of unclouded joy, delivered courtesy of Nelsons.

So what happens when you put Brahms and Stravinsky together on the same program? The qualities that they share and those they don’t are spotlighted. Both composers were tremendously interested in rhythm, and in its large-scale use to build musical structures. Both enjoyed displacement, that is, placing accents and grouping beats in unexpected ways. They both used syncopation extensively. They were both interested in older music, and some form of musical recycling was part of their basic working method, often using specific earlier works as models (Stravinsky on Pergolesi or Tchaikovsky, Brahms on Schütz, Bach or Haydn). They both used irony as a way of avoiding outright sentimentality. Brahms’ lyricism was fully romantic, while Stravinsky’s, though often present, is subject to restraints, even to suppression. Brahms can be played in a very romantic, heart-on-the-sleeve way and survive, while I don’t think it is ever appropriate to do Stravinsky that way. There may be a range of equally valid interpretations of a particular work of Stravinsky’s, but any hint of sentimentality or romantic excess should be left outside that range. For a program such as this, I feel the same thing should apply to Brahms as well. I would be happy to have my Brahms sounding a bit Stravinskian, but not the other way around.

Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky

1. There is an illustrative story: one of the double-bass players of the Chicago Symphony, situated far from the podium, got frustrated with Reiner’s tiny “chocolate squares” beat and brought a pair of binoculars to a rehearsal. Of course, he was promptly fired.

2. Stephen Ledbetter’s program note quotes Stravinsky: “I … chose Psalm 150 in part for its popularity, though another and equally compelling reason was my eagerness to counter the many composers who had abused these magisterial verses as pegs for their own lyrico-sentimental ‘feelings.’ The Psalms are poems of exaltation, but also of anger and judgment, and even of curses. Although I regarded Psalm 150 as a song to be danced, as David danced before the Ark, I knew that I would have to treat it in an imperative way.”

3. There is one wax cylinder where he speaks and plays a bit of one of the Hungarian dances, but the sound is so bad you can’t tell anything about the interpretation.

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