Prom 52: The Boston Symphony Orchestra 1 – Andris Nelsons conducts Adolphe, Strauss and Prokofiev

Julia Adolphe
Makeshift Castle [European premiere]

Richard Strauss
Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24

Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Andris Nelsons

Reviewed by: Alexander Hall

Reviewed: 25 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

When orchestras go on their travels, the programmes they bring with them from distant shores are often a reflection of what they have been recently playing or recording, or what the concert promoter would like to hear. In the first of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s two Proms under their Music Director, Andris Nelsons, it was difficult to spot an obvious link in the choice of works. Difficult also to think of two composers as diametrically opposed as Richard Strauss and Sergei Prokofiev. Given the orchestra’s long association with French music, a tradition nurtured by Monteux, Munch and latterly Ozawa, it was disappointing to see only one short piece by Ravel in the orchestra’s travel pack.

Strauss’s tone poem Death and Transfiguration, written in 1889, is the first such work for which the composer provided a detailed programmatic description. Nelsons and the Bostonians were effective at the start in conjuring up the idea of an old artist in his death throes – atmospheric in this initial skein of quiet beauty, with woodwind calling softly from their lowest registers, slight shudders from the strings, fine flute and oboe solos, and softly growling trombones. The first section is entitled “Happy Memories of Childhood”. Though it carries a Largo marking, there still needs to be a degree of animation if the music is not to descend into torpor. Moreover, in the second section dealing with the artist’s “Life and Death Battle”, the composer specifies Allegro molto agitato and the listener needs to feel this struggle keenly. At this point the transparency in the orchestral textures which Nelsons had earlier maintained virtually disappeared, with the entire brass section, positioned on high risers, now flattening all opposition. Nelsons favoured an expansive approach throughout, with big, brassy climaxes; however from this performance, you wouldn’t have known that the composer was famed for the voluptuousness of his writing for strings. Any Romantic urges were kept under control and the concluding Transfiguration was suitably chaste.

Soviet composers learned their lesson after official disapproval was voiced at too much experimentation. In his own Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich was clearly mindful of what the Composers’ Union had set out in 1933: “The main attention of the Soviet composer must be directed towards the victorious progressive principles of reality, towards all that is heroic, bright and beautiful.” When he came to write his wartime Fifth Symphony, Prokofiev clearly intended to uplift and console the Soviet people, noting it was meant “as a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit.” That, at least, was the official version. Yet it was not the whole picture. Subversion is a frequent recourse of artists under a dictatorship: Shostakovich developed ambiguity and Prokofiev rarely avoided hints of sarcasm.

Nelsons’s reading of this mighty work would, I suspect, have pleased the Soviet authorities. It was mostly gentle, lyrical, sweet-toned, with nothing much to alarm or unsettle, the glass always half-full rather than half-empty. Moreover, it was a very balletic performance – elegant and lyrical, revealing the composer’s instinct for creating theatrical illusion, especially in the two inner movements. There was an epic sweep to the opening Andante movement which moved unerringly towards a slow and protracted coda. Yet it was almost too beautiful, with no accentuation of rhythm or contrasting notes of astringency. This carried over into the Scherzo, where I had expected rather more motoric energy. Instead, the dream-like woodwind dispelled much sense of a circus-like atmosphere, the tambourine and side drum kept very much in the background, the menace in the cat-and-mouse patterning cleverly disguised.

The heart of this work is the F major Adagio, a deeply felt meditation with long balletic lines. There were certainly affecting moments, such as the song-like sequence towards the close with delicate woodwind set against a string ostinato and harp arpeggios, the closest Prokofiev comes in this symphony to a lullaby. Nelsons coaxed a greater depth of sound from his strings – grounded on ten double-basses – than he had earlier found in the Strauss tone poem, making this movement sound comfortable rather than in any way challenging. It was like watching the slow, soft tread of carpet slippers across lush pile. In the Finale I missed stronger contrasts: the soft-edged strings and aristocratic blend of the woodwind once again predominated, the exuberance only incrementally increasing as the battery of percussion instruments and heavy brass entered the frame.

The opening work, given in the presence of the composer, was Julia Adolphe’s Makeshift Castle. Reader, this is where I would like to initiate a discussion on the naming of contemporary works, with a box for comments provided below. It strikes me that we have long since moved away from titles such as Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Samuel Barber’s Three Essays for Orchestra or the large number of pieces entitled Theme and Variations. Today there is a worrying trend towards the inclusion of philosophical or metaphysical concepts that risk burdening the music unnecessarily. What would you make, for instance, of compositions called “The Sword Delivers”, “Anxiety, Anguish and Agony” or “The Incomparable Magnificence of Being”? Composers these days often provide explanations of their music. I have no doubt that these are intended to be helpful. They frequently reveal the inspiration behind the composition. In Adolphe’s case this was sharing a dramatic sunset over Lake Titus with her late father. But do the two interlinked movements entitled “Sandstone” and “Wooden Embers” really make a meaningful link with the overall title of Makeshift Castle?

In her own programme note Adolphe refers to “an awareness of loss and a lust for life”, the fragility of existence and the resilience of the human spirit. Her music displays a keen ear for sonorities and orchestral textures. I noted a splendid moment in the first section where harp and piccolo are set against delicate wisps of sound from the strings, as well as prominent parts for trumpets and a mournful solo cello towards the close of the piece. It is undeniably impressionistic music, with waves that advance and retreat, all skilfully crafted. But would I have been able to enjoy these sounds without the least bit of programmatic help? I would hope so.

2 thoughts on “Prom 52: The Boston Symphony Orchestra 1 – Andris Nelsons conducts Adolphe, Strauss and Prokofiev”

  1. Hi Alexander,

    You say quite rightly that

    ‘Today there is a worrying trend towards the inclusion of philosophical or metaphysical concepts that risk burdening the music unnecessarily.’

    and you have to ask if music is capable of presenting things as intellectually and emotionally complex as what you say later, i.e.

    ‘In her own programme note Adolphe refers to “an awareness of loss and a lust for life”, the fragility of existence and the resilience of the human spirit’

    I would suggest it is not.

    Best wishes.


  2. Rob, thank you for your comment. In connection with this “problem” in the way I have identified it to be, I always think of some of the advantages of radio drama. There the listener has absolute freedom to imagine what the characters actually look like and to allow their imagination to roam free. Being told by the composer what each segment of a new work represents means that a listener is forced into accepting that particular interpretation. To pursue a different analogy, if you stand in front of an abstract painting in an art gallery this is your opportunity to respond to it in a very personal way, rather than being limited by a statement of that particular artist’s intentions. Alexander

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