Thomas Adès leads the BSO in the suite to his opera, Powder Her Face, 7.22.18. Photo Hilary Scott.

More Strength Than Mystery—the Musical Spaces of Adès and Sibelius

Thomas Adès’ affinity for the music of Sibelius was manifest last summer when he led the TMC Orchestra in a program that included the Symphony no. 7.  In my review of that performance, I called attention to the relationship between mystery and space that is evident in this music and is also a factor in Adès’s own works.  These parameters were present in the current program but not as prominently: mystery was eclipsed by performances that were energetic even to the point of aggressiveness.  This might have been a function of the need to project into the cavernous reaches of the shed; both Adès and Tetzlaff, the soloist in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, favored large gestures, emotional intensity, and the upper end of the dynamic spectrum.  The results were musically clear and impressive, appropriate for Adès’s own music but sometimes less so for Sibelius.

Béla Bartók

Esa-Pekka Salonen and Christian Tetzlaff in Bartók with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall

The saint of Bleaker Street. Morose, manic, and methodical. They all alliterate with Magyar, the Hungarian spirit that ran through Bartók, and each term applies to his music. But the saddest match would be martyr. In God’s calculus of gifts, to those who suffer most, the most is given. Bartók’s soul must have believed in that formula. Like the other two titans of modernism, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, he was triply alienated, being a genius, an expatriate, and a logician of the abstruse. All three composers were forced to deal with their complex fates, yet Bartók made of his a via dolorosa.

Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine: Berg Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

The Berg Violin Concerto (1935) and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1910) are indeed a magical pair. Not only did Berg have a great affection for Mahler, both works are suffused with an elegiac, deathwards-inclined but lifewards-looking mood and a kindred morbid lyricism. The formal affinities between the two works are also intriguing. The concerto consists of two movements in two sections, while the four movements of the symphony also fall into a binary pattern, one of two slow movements framing a pair of fast movements. Their differences are also enlightening. Mahler’s thematic vocabulary remained full of the popular motifs which he first absorbed in his early work with Des Knaben Wunderhorn and street music, and Berg, while weaving in a wistfull memory of a Viennese waltz, constructed the last of his two movements on a chorale of Bach (“Es itst genug!” from the Cantata, Ewigkeit, Du Donnerwort whose rich setting was sympathetic to Berg’s own harmonic vocabulary. As rich and contemporary as Berg’s treatment was, it evokes the purism of the “back to Bach” trend of the twenties and thirties. For more biographical background and analysis, click here for the rich program annotations by Michael Steinberg, which also include a fascinating defense of Mahler’s music by Aaron Copland, actually a letter to the New York Times from April 2, 1925, which was reprinted in the BSO program to the Mahler Ninth’s American premiere in 1931 under Serge Koussevitzky.

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