Romanticism in music has had its ups and downs. Although it was popular at its inception, the romantic emphasis on lyricism and emotionality often seems fated to incur the wrath of musical sophisticates and modernists. Then it's revived and again valued, the last several decades being one example, following a period when the works of Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, and Barber, for example, were considered barbaric.
A recent weekend of Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts at Tanglewood— including works by Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss, Smetana and Tchaikovsky— offered a chance to reconsider some of the whys and wherefores of such vicissitudes. My conclusion: The nature of the performance had something "“ but not everything"“ to do with the success of the work.
Rachmaninoff occupied center stage in two of the three concerts. On the first evening, Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos conducted the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the astonishing Yuja Wang as pianist.
The so-called "Rhapsody" is in fact a series of short variations organized in the manner of a concerto in three "movements," a difficult compositional feat in itself. The work recapitulates musical history, moving from early Baroque and Classical flavors to the florid melodic elaborations for which Rachmaninoff is best known.
Wang catches the mood
Wang appeared more comfortable and familiar with the piece than did Frühbeck de Burgos, who struggled with the transitions between variations. Frühbeck conducted with enthusiasm and at times dynamic power, but he encountered trouble keeping the orchestra focused and together. By contrast, Wang played with authority and, to her credit, brought out the shifting moods and musical attitudes that Rachmaninoff intended in writing music that moved from the precise and metrical to the lyrical and free.
On the second evening, the gifted young conductor Sean Newhouse delivered a well-articulated rendition of Music of Air and Fire, a contemporary work by the American composer Pierre Jalbert, who was present to acknowledge well-deserved applause. Interestingly, the music, while it embodies the ideas (and unusual uses of instruments, such as bowed vibraphones!) of contemporary composers like Steve Reich, also has an emotionally cohesive ebb and flow that echoes the Romantics.
The music, not the musicians
Newhouse conducted with discipline combined with sensitivity and controlled energy. He came across as a very gentle figure Ó la Mozart and, to his credit, he conducted the music rather than the musicians, trusting in the capabilities of the outstanding Boston players.
Rachmaninoff's own experience with his two symphonies recapitulates in microcosm the shifting fortunes of Romanticism. His first, composed at age 24, was panned by press and audience alike, and the composer suffered a virtual nervous breakdown as a result of his sense of failure.
He subsequently had several counseling sessions, including hypnosis, with the psychiatrist Nikolai Dahl— perhaps one of the most successful psychotherapy treatments in recorded history, as it resulted in the Symphony No. 2, a beautifully crafted work. It's not only filled with haunting, evocative memories and mood changes, but is "“ if you really pay attention"“ a highly structured symphonic accomplishment, richly orchestrated and with thematic development and counterpoints of a highly sophisticated nature that Newhouse's clarity of performance pristinely revealed.
Chang's breakneck pace
Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, a soloistic tour de force perched between the classical and romantic traditions, challenges the performer to display her virtuosity while bringing out the rich interpretive possibilities inherent in its score. Sarah Chang is certainly up to this task, and nearly succeeded.
Unfortunately, she rendered it at such a rapid clip that her remarkable virtuosity overshadowed the depth that she might have evoked by holding back the tempo. Chang's racecar pace resulted in an outcome quite unlike Wang's immersion in the meaning and flow of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody.
The violinist unfortunately manifested one of the hazards of Romantic music: namely, that the performer can be so narcissistically preoccupied with making it her own that the music itself is lost in the process.
A similar outcome occurred in the past with Horowitz's outlandishly fast performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, which led the composer to say that he "swallowed it whole."
Degenerating into pop
On this weekend, three other diverse works from the Romantic era provided a full perspective on the vicissitudes of Romantic-style music.
The third and final concert, under the baton of Lionel Bringuier, featured Emanuel Ax's accurate and measured performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat, for which Ax wrote beautiful cadenzas that were simpatico with Mozart's style. Its delicacy contrasted with the passionate emotions of works by Smetana on the one side and Tchaikovsky on the other.
The problem with Romantic music for serious listeners is that it can appear to degenerate into hastily written and orchestrated popular and show music. Smetana's Moldau and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, while well-conducted by Bringuier— who like Frühbeck de Burgos came of age in Spain— seemed to border dangerously on such cliché-driven theatrics, as did Strauss's Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, conducted on the first evening by Frühbeck de Burgos. Strauss partially vindicated himself with his brilliant orchestrations and thematic materials, and The Moldau had a consistent sentiment and solidity that was redemptive.
But Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, coming at the very end of a three-day weekend, was somewhat hard to take. Tchaikovsky, who reaches so many listeners with his beautiful melodies and simple, very human stories, based the Fourth Symphony on the theme of an individual Fate or Destiny. This music boasted thematic development that had the feeling of a narrative with rich emotionality. Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky's orchestrations and sonorities seldom rise above the orchestra pits of the Broadway show. The contrast with Rachmaninoff in this respect was impossible to disregard.
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