Boston Symphony Orchestra
Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood Music Festival
July 10, 2021
Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus
Piano Concerto No. 5,. Op. 73, “The Emperor”
Symphony No. 5, Op. 67
Emanuel Ax, Piano
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, Music Director, conducting
Sunday, July 25th
Iman Habibi – Jeder Baum spricht
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 3
Schumann – Symphony No. 4
Yefim Bronfman, piano
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, conductor
In our 21st century barrage of high-profile concerts at major venues, streaming services, CDs, and now, with the COVID-19 Pandemic, Zoom, it takes some small effort to recover the occasional origins of the works we hear regularly as part of our diet of classical music. Historically the original context of the music is replaced by some other, contemporary event or circumstance deemed worthy of celebration by the organizers, whether it is a symbolic political event like the demolition of the Berlin Wall or some European Union event, the demise or commemoration of a musician or donor especially connected to the sponsoring program, or, once upon a time, Hitler’s birthday. We all know that there was a lot to celebrate in the season opener, even if Tanglewood had dispatched its most elaborate celebratory event the previous week in a July 4 event with the Boston Pops—and fireworks—usually held on the Esplanade in Boston. In recent years the July 4th celebration and the opening of the festival was handed over to James Taylor, who hardly inhabits the same world as Boston’s great orchestra, but whose wide fan base lends the national holiday a popular appeal as well as a welcome ingestion of turnstile funds in the early days of the festival. Mr. Taylor did not appear this year but promised to come back next summer. The season opening concert, which used to take the inaugural limelight before Taylor’s time, now marks the beginning of the festival’s primary raison d’être, the performance of a broad range of the classical repertoire aimed at a broad range of audiences, from casual summer tourists to the more specialized attendees of the Festival of Contemporary Music.
Opening night usually concentrates on the more familiar end of the repertory, making an appeal to Tanglewood’s general public. This all-Beethoven program, which included the ubiquitous Fifth Symphony along with the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, and the beloved “Emperor” Concerto certainly satisfied that function, as well as a resumption of the Beethoven celebrations interrupted by the pandemic and public performances by the BSO and the Tanglewood Festival. The program was billed as a re-inauguration of the festival, since it was part of the orchestra’s first performance at Tanglewood in August 1937. I, for one, felt immensely grateful for the return of live music at this distinguished level, and the celebratory mood was not lost on me. I felt that I would have been perfectly delighted with mediocre performances under the circumstances, and, given Nelsons’ Tanglewood performance of Beethoven’s Ninth a few years ago, I had little reason to expect much more on this occasion.
The concert, performed without intermission like all Tanglewood concerts this year, began, in the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, with a series of tubby chords, overly dominated by the lower strings. Nelsons’ commendably steady, slow pacing carried us through to the appearance of the quick main theme. Gradually the familiar brilliance of the BSO’s violins began to assert itself and by its conclusion balances were back in place. This brief overture was also enough to give me the impression that everyone on stage, including Maestro Nelsons, was determined to do his or her best. Impressions are subjective, of course.
Maestro Nelsons used the short break before the “Emperor”to introduce BSO’s new CEO, Gail Samuel.
My impression about the high commitment of the musicians to make this concert a special occasion was borne out in the first bars of the concerto by Mr. Ax as well. He brought a vast range of dynamics and color to the “Emperor,” and Nelsons listened and followed carefully, providing the finest accompaniment I have yet heard from him. He also achieved remarkable sonorities in the wind playing, highly characterized and prominent, but also well-blended into the tutti. The brass was big, and extremely polished, with nary a clam emitted by the esteemed BSO horns, led by James Somerville. The BSO strings returned from the shutdown with a color that was robust and coarser than their traditional refined sound. This persisted through the subsequent concerts Nelsons conducted, so one can conclude that this is the tone he wants from them, and it has proven most effective, to these ears, in composers as diverse as Beethoven, Sibelius, and Dvořák so far this summer. Ax’s variety of inflection—and, subtly, tempo—was informed by a thoughtful, probing insight into the “Emperor”—a work which has faded in appeal for many listeners in favor of the sublime Fourth Piano Concerto. If any performance of the work could freshen up our ears and minds it was this memorable reading.
The sound Nelsons elicited from the orchestra suited his large-scale treatment of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to perfection. What created variety and a chamber-music-like dialogue among the sections in the concerto enhanced the directness and energy of the symphony. The first movement was urgent without excessive celerity. A pause for wandering audience members to take their seats gave it something of the character of an overture to the second movement, Andante con moto, which was clearly not the composer’s intention at all, any more than it was Nelsons’. He let the music breathe and express its inherent dignity without overly solemnizing it. The sequence beginning with the bizarre main section of the scherzo and leading through to the end followed through in an unbroken arc, leading straight to the triumphal conclusion. Nelsons’ reading was eminently coherent as it led up to a full-bodied—loud—finale, in which strongly accented chords, played as if most of them were marcato, became increasingly prominent. The brass acquired an exciting throaty attack which added to the overall vigor and virility of this outstanding performance.
I’ll take this opportunity to mention an important point made by Jan Caeyers in his recently translated biography of Beethoven, that “While the symphony opens with a prototypical Austro- German sound, for the final movement Beethoven adds a piccolo, contrabassoon, and three trombones, all of which were typical of what was then known as the ‘French Revolutionary style.’ Beethoven seems to be suggesting that a bright future would have a French veneer, and we might imagine that it was with this vision that he hoped to win over the hearts of Paris.” 1 Indeed, during the extended period he worked on the Fifth Symphony and later, Beethoven harbored dreams of leaving Vienna, which he found frustrating in terms of musical taste, musical business, and political life, for Paris, which seemed to offer more freedom and opportunity.
Beethoven piano concerti returned the following week in an eloquent reading of the Third by Yefim Bronfman, accompanied by the BSO, also under Maestro Nelsons’ direction. If this earlier work offered fewer lures to exploration than the “Emperor,” Bronfman played with elegance and a rich, plush tone, without letting it and his pedalling fog over the brilliant, witty details of Beethoven’s writing. Nelsons gave him a strong, consistently alert accompaniment.
The concert opened with a fascinating, richly crafted work of an environmental bent by the young Iranian-Canadian composer Iman Habibi, whose technical mastery is matched by his musical and cultural literacy. It is called Jeder Baum spricht (=”Every Tree Speaks”). Based on an annotation by Beethoven in a sketch for the Sixth Symphony, the work was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra for his 250th anniversary. I’ll certainly stay on the lookout for opportunities to hear more of Mr. Habibi’s compositions.
The last work on the program was Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, in another full-blooded, stirring performance. Nelson’s did bring out some lines in the orchestra one doesn’t always hear, but they didn’t impress me a necessarily important. The most interesting of these was in the final movement: an obscure motif of repeated notes functioning as a tiny fanfare to introduce a more expressive phrase, which usually comes across in a more subdued way. On the other hand, Nelsons didn’t make much of the famous accellerandi in the first and final movements. As detailed as it was, Nelsons’ reading fell short of the revelatory, but it was satisfying nonetheless.
If Nelsons’ manages to follow the qualities of these performances consistently in the future, it could mean the beginning of a happy period for the BSO.
I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the return of our cultural life than with these uplifting works by one of our greatest composers, and in saying that I have no regrets. However, I should observe that I am aware that Jaap van Zweden decided to devote the New York Philharmonic’s 2020 season to a series of commissions from women composers, as well as Beethoven’s position in the realm of cancel culture and the discussion about the Ninth Symphony and rape. I may have an opportunity to say more about Beethoven’s cultural preeminence later in a discussion of historical performances of his symphonies.
- Jan Caeyers, Beethoven, a Life, Oakland, 2020, p. 291 ↩