Boston Symphony Orchestra’s (“BSO”) dynamic timpanist, Timothy Genis, stands with his gleaming kettle drums at the rear center of the stage at Symphony Hall always at the ready to deliver a burbling percussive groove or, when required by a score, a cataclysmic jolt of thunder.
Genis, like his teammates in the BSO, are all on a roll under the baton of their enthusiastic Musical Director Andris Nelsons. Like those scatter shots from the deft Genis’ drums, there is a renewed sense of vitality and heightened expressive force alive and well in the BSO’s playing, as it evolves in this, its 135th season.
Exhibit #1 of the BSO’s current freshness of sound was the performance of the BSO in Symphony Hall on February 19th led by the Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski and Russian guest violinist Alina Ibragimova.
Regardless of the state of affairs between the United States and Russia currently, these two Russian artists conversed beautifully with their BSO comrades in a performance of inspired music making. This particular BSO performance was also special in that the program was performed with smaller ensemble groups rather than with the entire orchestra on stage. This offered the opportunity to hear individual sections and soloists of the BSO play in their small scale glory, allowing for contrasting instrumental colors and textures to be heard with great clarity and visceral impact. Jurowski clearly relished the opportunity to conduct in the context of these smaller scaled ensembles. With his artful and quick gestures, he encouraged animated playing from these ensembles with a shared passion for mining every nook and cranny of the music in all its dynamic inner voices. The music chosen for this program aligned well with this purpose: from the brisk frolic of Haydn’s Symphony No. 26 (“Lamentatione”) to Beethoven’s roguish humor (in his Symphony No. 2) to the elegiac restlessness of Hartmann’s intensely personal Concerto Funebre.
This performance was also a chance to hear one of the world’s young eloquent voices on the violin, Alina Ibragimova, who was making her BSO debut at these concerts. Before this performance, I had heard Ibragimova on her earlier recording, “Beethoven Violin Sonatas-2” [Wigmore Hall Live CD] in which she joins pianist Cedric Tiberghien in an intimately recorded performance at Wigmore Hall in London.
This recording is excellent, particularly in its capturing of the small performance space and the inner chemistry naturally flowing between these two dynamic musicians. In this recording, you can hear how Ibragimova effortlessly communicates and inhabits the emotional heft (or lightness of expression) in every Beethoven twist and turn with great focus and a beautiful, unwavering tone. Her highest caresses on her violin are lithe and mercurial, unfurling sweet and radiant. Tiberghien is also the perfect dance partner for Ibragimova as he gently interweaves his eloquent piano accents and solos in and around Ibragimova’s nimble violin, making for a performance of great ease and range of expression.
In her BSO debut, Ibragimova displayed this same gift for thoroughly inhabiting the emotional and technical worlds of the pieces she performed. She began with Karl Hartmann’s Concerto Funebre accompanied by a small string section. Hartmann wrote this piece in the autumn of 1939, not long after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. As a member of an anti-fascist family, Hartmann survived in Germany during the Nazi regime by refusing to have his music performed in Germany as an act of solidarity with persecuted fellow composers. He composed music in secret to communicate the atrocities that he observed. (He dedicated a piece he wrote in 1934 to prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp). His Concerto Funebre is filled with elegiac silences; clamoring bow hits (like skeletons racing towards some dead end); soaring and tender string holds (with some so faint they sounded like a dying whisper) and a final up surging note that soared into the rafters, like a spiritual beacon of hope rising amongst the despair. Ibragimova conveyed all of this drama with brilliant musicianship and a special gift for maintaining a muscular, yet tender, presence on her violin. Her long held notes were like structural beams of steel – never wavering in their tone or in their substance, even on the highest of whispered notes. For his part, Jurowski led the ensemble with concise and bracing gestures. For instance, at the end of the first movement, he held his fist outwards with fingers spread wide to indicate a long held note. He then slowly and methodically closed his fingers into a fist (while the orchestra held this slowly dying note), until his fist was completely formed at the precise moment the note was extinguished from the bows of his players. It was a transfixing moment.
This powerful and spiritual piece was a journey through wasteland and death, yet somehow Hartmann’s optimism (in abiding beauty and mystery) also came through in the final upsurge at the end of the piece, with Ibragimova lifting her bow skyward in a final muscular flourish and salute.
The concluding pieces of the program, Haydn’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, were also delivered in fresh propulsive fashion, with many an exuberant burst. On the Haydn, Ibragimova’s violin soared (in light flutters of staccato notes) to the crisp interplay of the BSO strings and Randall Hodgkinson on his sunny harpsichord. The last movement of the Haydn was the epitome of propulsion and string glitter (with Ibragimova displaying an effortless and polished sound from her lowest pungent registers to her highest soars with a singing quality all her own).
Jurowski followed this crisp romp by leading a quick paced and spirited Beethoven Second Symphony, in which he and the BSO (again in a smaller configuration) moved as one unit intent on unearthing all of Beethoven’s buoyant wit and dazzling little contrasts in skittering rhythms and melodies flowing in the sunshine. A highlight in the first movement were several young BSO viola players propelling the melody along with big string plunges and emphasis, encouraged along by Jurowski’s baton as he gestured to them to plow deeper with his own dipping arm swings. In the second movement, there was a wonderful dialogue between the strings and the woodwinds that Jurowski pounced upon with glee. He floated on his tiptoes to the swaying phrases that were passed from the strings (singing high in unison) to the woodwinds, (arching upwards and bright) in rousing fashion.
The final movement was taken at a vigorous pace with each section skittering over comic starts and stops with flowing moments contrasted with quick descents into thunderous rumbles. Throughout it all, Jurowski used utmost craft to mine the rhythmic diversity and inner dynamic play of these flowing sunny forces, joining with the supremely capable BSO musicians (and timpanist Genis) in the final pounce from pianissimo to fortissimo in a lightning bolt flash.
For a recent recording that captures a lot of this same emotional intensity and full-throttled pacing in a performance of Beethoven symphonies, do take a listen to the new recording by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Manfred Honeck, in their performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Symphony No. 7 [Fresh! from Reference Recordings www.referencerecordings.com; Hybrid SACD for 5.1 and Stereo SACD and CD listening). These performances are ravishing in their expansive sound and buoyancy. Each movement brings new gifts to explore: the expressive weight of the strings (all vibrant tones and capacious plucks); the ringing out of brass choruses thunderous and deep in the stage or the highest piccolo leaps tremulous and fragile. Honeck has the orchestra working with great alertness as to each intrepid moment in Beethoven’s brilliant writing. They collectively explore the unexpected meter shifts, the surprising leaps and the quiet moments of tension with great anticipation and wonder on this recording. The big moments of drama are huge and spacious; the quiet moments resonant with anticipation. This is a superb recording, especially in its SACD layer, delivering heft, surrounding air and natural solidity to instruments in a layered and expansive acoustic space.
The BSO also has two recent recordings with Nelsons at its helm – one better sonically than the other. In February, the BSO received a Grammy Award for its inaugural recording with Deutsche Grammophon entitled Shostakovich Under Stalin’s Shadow [Deutsche Grammophon; www.bso.org] that contains live performances at Symphony Hall of Shostakovich’s Passacaglia and his Symphony No 10. This recording contains stellar musicianship at every turn but from an audiophile’s perspective, it sounds somewhat compressed and overly dry and analytical. For instance, the huge cataclysmic opening to Passacaglia is dynamic but fails to have the kind of natural decay that one would expect in hearing such volcanic sounds in the heft of Symphony Hall. String and woodwind tones are crisp and dry and many times truncated in their full instrumental body, (The rat-a-tat snare leading the frenetic Allegro of Symphony #10 is an example where the drum is crisp in outline but its sound is dry and cut off from its full natural resonance and decay into the hall).
In contrast to this Grammy awarded disc, I have found that an earlier recording of the BSO, taken from live performances in Symphony Hall in 2014 (at the beginning of Nelsons’ tenure as Musical Director), is much better in capturing the BSO playing live in Symphony Hall. This is the BSO’s recording on its own label, performing Wagner’s Overture To Tannhauser and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 [BSO Classics; www.bso.org]. This recording captures much better the glowing prodigious presence of the orchestra within the unique acoustic space of Symphony Hall, (a space that my mentor Harry Pearson frequently alluded-to as possessing a special “Golden Sound”). Although I do not listen frequently to the music of Wagner (as his infamous 1850 anti-Semitic “treatise” and Hitler’s later glorification of his music for the Nazi regime does not allow me much emotional attachment to it – art and politics are inseparable!) still, the BSO’s recording here of Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture is beautiful to hear. On this particular recording, the BSO string sections are captured nearly as they sound live in Symphony Hall: one channel of flowing resin and strings with dense tone colors, all pulsating in unity and expressive purpose. (Concertmaster Malcolm’s tender-as-a-reed-violin solo mid-way through this piece – in partnership with his string colleagues- is a special little treat here too).
The final brass chorus in the Wagner rings out with tremendous power and heft, like cannon shots pounding all the way to the rear of Symphony Hall- leaving a trail of golden long decay. The BSO’s performance of the Sibelius is also built upon robust textures and stellar musicianship. The recording delivers Sibelius’ gifts for building rousing monumental melodies and orchestral forces in combination with exuberant bursts of colors and unexpected harmonies. The First Movement to his Symphony No. 2 is a highlight here: all soulful, unflinching music by this great orchestra collectively searching for the emotional and expressive core of Sibelius’ vision and delivering it within the tactile heft, air and glory of Symphony Hall.
FUTURE RECORDING TIP: Keep an ear out for the BSO’s next live recording from Symphony Hall, due to be released in April, 2016 in a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. (See www.bso.org). I attended the November 21, 2015 performance when this recording was made and Nelsons and the BSO delivered a thrilling performance that brought down the house. Hopefully, the recording will be of the same quality as heard in the BSO’s Sibelius and Wagner recording from Symphony Hall in 2014.