Tanglewood’s Boston Symphony Orchestra Opening Night, Friday, July 5, 2019: Mozart Piano Concerto in E Flat, K. 482 and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony

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Emanuel Ax joins the BSO and Andris Nelsons for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat. Photo Hilary Scott.
Emanuel Ax joins the BSO and Andris Nelsons for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat. Photo Hilary Scott.

Prelude Concert, Ozawa Hall:
Mozart, Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat, k. 452
Jongen, Rhapsodie for Piano and Winds
Françaix, “L’heure de Berger”
Pianist Jonathan Bass and a wind quintet of Boston Symphony Orchestra members

Boston Symphony Concert, Koussevitzky Shed:
Mozart, Piano Concerto no. 22 in E-flat, K. 482
Emmanuel Ax, piano
Mahler, Symphony no. 5
Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra

On Friday night as evening approached, a quintet of wind players from the Boston Symphony, joined by excellent pianist Jonathan Bass, set the mild summer air of Ozawa Hall in motion with an elegant program of wind music well-suited to assist listeners transition from the pleasures of a perfect day in the Berkshires to the orchestral depths of tragedy, passion, and triumph by nightfall. Mozart initiated both programs with elegant, joyful, and subtly profound works composed at the apex of his career: the piano and winds quintet, which he professed to be his favorite among works composed to that point, and the concerto, no. 22, which (along with no. 23) stands unostentatiously between better-known works on either side (nos. 20 and 21 preceding, nos. 24 and 25 following). The kinship between quintet and concerto goes beyond common key: they both use the winds as lyrical foils for the piano. The concerto is the first in which Mozart deploys clarinets instead of oboes, and also offers a significant role to the solo flute, belying the view that Mozart had little use for this instrument.  As Mozart developed the piano concerto into a mature and powerful vehicle for expression, he assigned the winds a growing role as independent choir offsetting piano on the one hand and strings on the other. Their contribution was acknowledged when Mr. Ax insisted that the wind players be acknowledged before taking his own solo bow.

Writing for winds individually and in chamber ensembles was a specialty of French composers from the fin-de-siècle through the 20th century, during which time the Paris Conservatory producing several impressive generations of wood-wind performers, many of whom ended in the Boston Symphony. The works in the prelude concert by the Belgian Joseph Jongen and the French Jean Françaix were typical and expert examples of the fluency, color, and wit characteristic of this school. Jongen’s work was the more robust, with rich, almost orchestral textures abetted by a robust piano part, while Françaix’s was light and witty, originally intended as live restaurant background music (those were the days!).  Enjoyable as they were, these works were easily consumed, leaving little trace behind, preparing the audience for al fresco dining and weightier fare to come. 

Weight certainly characterized the orchestral portion of the evening. The concerto experienced the richness of a string section many times larger than Mozart must have intended. While the silky sound of the BSO strings remained transparent enough for the suave pianism of Mr. Ax to shine through, the large number of players rendered the rhythmic coordination between piano, winds, and strings sometimes only approximate; this was exacerbated by Nelsons’ baton which emphasized dynamics and accents at the expense of perfect ensemble. Nevertheless, there was ample expressiveness, particularly in the C minor slow movement, a cousin to the similar sections of the earlier E-flat Concerto (No. 9, K. 291) and the Sinfonia Concertante, all of which engage in the pathos of the operatic stage. We read that the premiere of this concerto was possibly conducted by Antonio Salieri, a seasoned opera composer and friend (not murderer!) of Mozart. It is fun to imagine how he might have shaped this dark lyricism.

Darkness fully descended during the first two movements of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which were grouped as Part 1 in an innovative three-part formal outline. This is the first of three symphonies where Mahler eschewed the use of text and voice which had played a prominent role in the preceding three. Also eschewed is the use of programmatic titles—Mahler was attempting to become a born-again absolutist. Nevertheless, the tropes and musical references that he implanted suggest a narrative arc (spelled out below, perhaps with a grain of salt). The first section of Part 1 is an unambiguous funeral march; it springs from a moment in the the composer’s previous symphony (no. 4), in an otherwise sunny and faux-naïve first movement, when clouds momentarily obscure the sun and the trumpet intones a funereal fanfare, foreshadowing the main theme of this next symphony (note for note, and in the same key). Mahler’s scoring in Symphony no. 5 is much fuller, with expanded lower brass and a leading role for the trumpets. Avatars of this funeral music are Siegfried’s Death (Wagner, Götterdämmerung) and the first part of Mahler’s own Resurrection Symphony (originally entitled “Totenfeier”—funeral ritual). If the Fourth Symphony foreshadows death in its first two movements, and enacts a trip to heaven in its final movement, the Fifth Symphony may be heard as a continuation of the narrative, a response first of numbness, then of a wild outpouring of grief. Part 2 is a powerful waltz-scherzo that rouses itself out of tragedy with a heroic call back to life by the French horn, which remains a concertante protagonist throughout its 16-minute length. The episodic nature of scherzo form (with many trios) enabled Mahler to veer wildly from the optimistic opening to rueful reminiscences of the tragedy (not quite left behind) to tentative and gradual restoration of optimism building finally to an ecstatic (not to say orgiastic) climax. The demands on orchestra and conductor to hold this mosaic-like structure together in both time and space are enormous. 

Having summoned us back from tragic contemplation, Part 3 opens with the Adagietto for harp and strings only, a sentimental favorite of audiences long before they caught up with the rest of Mahler (particularly in the US), and a reputed love-letter from Gustav to his new wife Alma. Having returned from death and awakened to the possibility of happiness, falling in love seems the logical next step. After that, there remains only the joy of music itself: the final movement is a lengthy, heterogenous, and witty (self-mocking) tribute to “learned music,” i.e. counterpoint, and principally to J. S. Bach, but secondarily to Mahler’s own paradoxical joining of spontaneous melody and musical erudition. Bach appears in the use of joyful fugal activity throughout, culminating in a grand chorale. Mahler bases the main theme on his Knaben Wunderhorn song, “Lob des hohen Verstandes”—“Praise of High Understanding” in which Cuckoo and Nightingale hold a singing contest. The judge, a donkey with “long ears” pronounces Cuckoo the winner because he makes “gut Chorale”—despite Nightingale’s good singing, Cuckoo has a better intellectual grasp of musical technique, like Bach and like Mahler in this movement. The appearance of humor and self-mockery makes this one of the most entertaining moments in Mahler’s oeuvre—he seems to have found a genuine solution to the “finale problem” that plagued symphony writers since Beethoven by going back to the Haydnesque strategy of turning the audience out onto the streets happy and whistling. The climactic chorale, it turns out, is Mahler’s slightly disguised reworking of “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern”—“how beautifully shines the morning star” which is the basis of Bach’s Cantata no. 1. Judging by the response of the audience, Nelsons and the Boston Symphony succeeded in placing that beauty before their eyes even before they departed from the Shed and out into the night.

Performances of Mahler exhibit a wide spectrum of interpretive approaches, from the straightforward (and more “classical”) adherence to the score, as found in performances by Boulez, Dohnanyi, and Abbado, to a more wildly romantic urge, an impulse to magnify every indication of mood shift and emotional intensity. This is characteristic of Bernstein’s interpretations, especially the later ones with the Vienna Philharmonic. It has been pointed out that since Mahler’s symphonies have become the new standard fare for orchestras, some conductors wish to emphasize the mellifluous and lyrical elements at the expense of the paradoxical and conflicting ones, elements that used to be considered part of the Mahler problem: rambling structures, incongruous elements, and just plain bad taste. Having crossed the rubicon of Bernstein’s 1960 traversal of the entire Mahler canon, American audiences are now free from such critical carping and are ready to embrace Mahler whole, but we still need to ask which Mahler we are wrapping our arms around. We can view him as a Janus-like figure, one face looking back to Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, and Wagner, the other looking forward to Schoenberg, Berg, and Shostakovich. He is either an entertaining and consoling figure or a disturbing an provocative one. There is no simple equation between the classical/romantic approach and the question of which Janus-face we are being presented with, but these polarities are helpful in articulating the approach of a given performance. 

Nelsons clearly took the romantic approach, lovingly shaping every detail, and altering tempo and pacing even more than what is indicated in the score; each moment was given maximum characterization, and every melody sang out with passion. The results favored the forward-looking Janus-face: one heard foreshadowings of the Viennese school of atonality (Mahler was a great admirer of the early Schoenberg), of contrasting textures threatening to pull the music apart, of the intensity of the moment derailing the flow of events, producing a kind of listeners’ exhaustion. (I can’t help wondering whether a performance in the friendlier acoustics of Symphony Hall might not have concerned itself to the same extent with trying to reach the back row with maximum impact.) The result of this approach, I felt, was unfortunate. Nelsons’ encouragement of the brasses resulted right away in a few “clams” in the trumpet part, and in general, a harshness in the brasses that tended to swamp the other sections of the orchestra which should have remained audible in Mahler’s carefully calibrated contrapuntal textures. One has never before heard the tuba growling aggressively through the texture as vividly; an interesting sound, but is it one required by the music? If the strings in the Mozart concerto had difficulty with rhythmic precision, it seems that this problem here spread throughout the orchestra. While these great players were able to keep together within their own sections, the precise and detailed imbrication of the textures that was so carefully provided by the composer was lost repeatedly, resulting in phrases following each other as non-sequiturs, without a unanimous or even a clearly presented sense of unifying pulse. Taken together with the vividness of the individual components of these complex textures, and the experience approached that of a surreal canvas or an orchestral work by Charles Ives (as noticed by my wife, who listened to the broadcast). There is no question that Mahler sought a collage-like or episodic continuity but it is also the case that there is a carefully constructed through-line in the rhythms and harmonies that was frequently obscured. 

I doubt if all this was deliberate: this is a hugely complex score, and I have heard it given sloppy or even uninspired performances in the past. (This is not to say that there have not been very successful ones, such as was offered by the Concertgebouw under Chailly in New York about 20 years ago.) The Boston Symphony and Nelsons gave it their all in a heroic effort, but with three concerts to prepare in a week, it is likely that their all was not quite enough. The harshness of the brass playing and the disruptions in the flow of the music left me feeling less ecstatic than I should in the end. This, however, did not seem to be a feeling shared by the audience whose enthusiastic reception indicated that it had experienced a thoroughly satisfyingly catharsis. We may be ready for Mahler’s rough edges, but we still need to be aware of the firm structural foundation beneath them.

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