Boston in DC, sans Levine
Very nice program from the Boston Symphony Saturday despite Jimmy's unfortunate absence--Roberto Abbado did guest conducting duties instead, and Peter Serkin joined as a soloist for a program of Haydn, Bartok and Beethoven (a wholesale revision of the Levine program, I believe, but I'm not going to go digging out my old WPAS mailers). Hearing awesome orchestras that one has never heard before is always a treat, and Boston did not disappoint. Everything that separates the men from the boys was on display here: a distinguished sound with great depth, unerring balances, consistently fine winds and brass across the board, and skillz to spare when it comes to executing precision moves.
I find my reasons for liking or disliking lead-off Haydn (No. 93 in this instance) somewhat mysterious, but this I liked. Perhaps it was largely just my first chance to really hang with their sound for a while, but the whole thing had a gravity and deliberateness that was hard not to admire, though Abbado maybe let things get a bit four square at times compared to the more organic Haydn to be had elsewhere.
The Bartok piano concerto No. 3 was certainly the most eagerly anticipated thing on the program, but I'm not sure if it entirely succeeded. The first movement unfolded with a romantic heaviness that seemed at odds with the work--one need more of that mercurial Bartok flavor to really capture the flickering textures of the music. The second movement was closer to the mark--Abbado's glacial pacing and Serkin's solemn reading nicely capturing the elemental qualities of nature or folk people and stuff tapped into here. The finale was exhilarating to be sure, with some truly astounding playing by Serkin, though again, the propulsion seemed derived from sheer force of will, not Bartok's babbling rhythms.
After the half was Beethoven 5, and, well, you really can't go wrong with a great orchestra playing that, now can you? I will take this opportunity to reprint a bit of that famous E.M. Forster passage in case you haven't seen it in a while (extended passage at Sandow here):
"No; look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back," breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right. Her brother raised his finger; it was the transitional passage on the drum.For, as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push, and they began to walk in a major key instead of in a minor, and then--he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! Gusts of splendour, gods and demigods contending with vast swords, colour and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent victory, magnificent death! Oh, it all burst before the girl, and she even stretched out her gloved hands as if it was tangible. Any fate was titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars.And the goblins--they had not really been there at all? They were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them? Men like the Wilcoxes, or ex-President Roosevelt, would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return--and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall. Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.
The first three movements were played beautifully, if without too many distinctive touches, besides perhaps a grittier sense of the drama in places. But Abbado's breakneck finale (with the BSO hardly breaking a sweat) was simply fantastic, irrepressible music-making, reminding all how much visceral power there is in this music, no small accomplishment given its familiarity. Walking out of the auditorium, I realized that the version on my ipod for a while now is some burnished Karajan snoozer and well, after hearing Beethoven like this, that just won't do.
Update: Downey a shade less enthusiastic about both the band and Abbado here. Given the comparison he draws with the NSO and BalSO ("the playing remained at a very high level...although not so far above our two local orchestras as one might have expected"), I would add that "boys" above is general and not meant to impugn any local teams. Downey also suggests that the problem might not have been less Bartok flavor, but rather inferior Bartok product.
Midgette is a more admiring of the Bartok and likewise measures Abbado's professional readings against Eschenbach's more emotionally involved approach here...