Dreamscape [New York premiere]
Piano Concerto No.27 in B flat, K595
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40
Richard Goode (piano)
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley
Reviewed: 15 April, 2015
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
The Boston Symphony Orchestra opened its three-concert series at Carnegie Hall led by recently appointed music director Andris Nelsons, whose enthusiasm and physical mannerisms – flexing his fingers to express a particular nuance or crouching down to elicit a sudden softening of volume – infused the BSO with energy and spirit.
They made a strong impression in Gunther Schuller’s Dreamscape, commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center for its 75th-anniversary in 2012. Schuller, his ninetieth birthday occurs later this year, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, one of America’s outstanding scholars and educators, and the author of several important books. Schuller’s musical ideas occasionally show traces of his jazz background and reflect his boundlessly energetic style, characteristics evident in Dreamscape: “virtually the entire work … was presented to me in a dream … ranging from its overall form and conception to an amazing amount of specific detail.” This piece is remarkable in its complex polyphonic material and diverse instrumentation, including an abundance of percussion instruments.
The opening movement, ‘Scherzo Umoristico e Curioso’, is a rambunctious Ivesian cartoon, beginning with an explosion on an uproarious slide with musical scraps that flit from one instrument to another as they are pelted by woodblock strokes. There are witty referents (including Tchaikovsky ballet music and ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’) punctuated by brass interjections that fuse into a wild profusion of fantastical ribaldry. In contrast, ‘Nocturne’ creates an aura of mystery with shades of gloom that give way to massive outbursts that disappear as quickly as they came. In ‘Birth-Evolution-Culmination’ soft dissonant chords in lower strings generate a strangely disquieting atmosphere as a backdrop for solo-cello musings. Fits and starts emerge, as if trying to give birth to melodic content that is never achieved. Just as the music builds to a ferocious outpouring of brass fired with raucous string figuration, the piece breaks off without resolution. Nelsons and the BSO captured the work’s diverse moods with impressive transparency and precision. Schuller took a well-deserved bow.
Next was Richard Goode’s delightful rendition of Mozart’s final Piano Concerto. He gave a clear and easygoing performance, warm, delicate and thoroughly beguiling. Although much of the music is light and airy, it seems reluctant to express the fullness of life’s joys, almost as if anticipating the composer’s untimely demise. Goode’s sublime reading of the Larghetto was especially captivating and seemed more in tune with its gentle, dreamy character than Nelsons’s efforts to hype up the accompaniment. Goode’s technical skills remain undiminished to complement his elegant expression.
Nelsons’s intelligently conceived and nuanced reading of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) was most impressive. The BSO performed superbly, Nelsons eliciting exquisite playing combined with climactic passages of robust strength and vitality. Tempos were lively, giving youthful impulse to ‘The Hero’ (Strauss himself) and only the appearance of Strauss’s critics, on woodwinds and brass, was exceedingly brisk. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe performed the violin solos intended to portray ‘The Hero’s Companion’ (Strauss’s wife, Pauline) with admirable dexterity and refined lyricism.
The battle scene, introduced by a volley of trumpet fanfares and military-drum rolls, was thrilling, Nelsons perfectly timing its long buildup to a stupendous climax. References to earlier works by Strauss – Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Tod und Verklärung, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, Macbeth, and Guntram – came through with lucidity. During the concluding sections, after the Hero’s work is done, Nelsons turned such resolution into a somewhat angry, at times fierce rejection of life, the brass ablaze with anger. When the music calms down, Nelsons took his time to concentrate on prayer-like world-weariness, sometimes hesitating between sections to let the full measure of this personal expression sink in. Nelsons showed a thoughtful interpretative sense that is most welcome these days when orchestral music is all too often performed as if by rote.