Concert Review: Tchaikovsky, Takemitsu, and Shostakovich at Symphony Hall
Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, whose patronage of living composers and championship of contemporary music is second-to-none, gave a searing, intense reading of the solo part in Nostalghia (In Memory of Andrei Tarkovskij).
By Jonathan Blumhofer
“Without Contraries is no progression,” wrote William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. “Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to Human existence.” While he certainly wasn’t thinking about orchestral music when he made that pronouncement, the quote provides some food for thought when considering this weekend’s Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) concerts, which feature the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in a pair of pieces by Tchaikovsky and Toru Takemitsu plus the latest installments in Andris Nelsons’ ongoing, recorded Shostakovich survey.
On the one hand, there was a certain consistency present. To judge from Thursday’s performance, for instance, Mutter’s take on the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto isn’t much different from the one she committed to disc back in 2003. Unfortunately, that reading wasn’t particularly successful. Indulgent of tempo and extreme rubato; vibrato- and portamento-heavy; marred by a too-muscular, overly-aggressive tone, it suggested a musician searching (though not always in the right places) for a fresh take on an old standby.
Evidently, not much has changed in the ensuing decade-plus. On Thursday, Mutter still tugged on the line here and sped it up suddenly there. But there was little charm to be found in those gestures – or joy, for that matter. Rather, everything was abrupt and matter-of-fact.
On top of that, she hammed up the music’s lyricism by audibly swooping or sliding into nearly every “destination pitch” (and more than a few of the ones in between). In the opening part of the slow middle movement, whose central section was unquestionably beautiful and winning, she followed Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s dubious model of adjusting Tchaikovsky’s printed dynamics down a level or three, to near inaudibility. The cadenza-like sections of the finale offered visions of dour Teutonic humor, rather than anything approaching the score’s latent Slavic vim and joie de vivre. It was, to these ears, cartoonish and, after the first five-or-so minutes, frustratingly predictable.
The best parts of Thursday’s reading actually turned out to be many of the Concerto’s flashiest passages, largely because they reined in Mutter’s excesses. Thus the outer movements’ rapid-fire double- and triple-stops, the breathless dashes to those movements’ endings, and the finale’s second theme played in octaves all shined brighter than usual, given their context in the interpretation.
Nelsons and the BSO did their best to keep up, though there was tentativeness in the orchestra’s accompaniment and, in the finale, a fair amount of catching up with the soloist on offer. When left to its own devices – in the first movement’s orchestral exposition, the woodwind refrains of the slow movement, and the driving transition to the finale’s coda, especially – the BSO’s playing really clicked.
One expects things overall will be tighter in the coming performances (on Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday nights). Still, it was hard to escape the sense that Mutter, while she may not dislike the Tchaikovsky, has, perhaps, played the bloom off the rose and can retire the piece for a while to focus her energies more productively elsewhere.
That feeling was only reinforced by the exquisite reading she gave after intermission of Takemitsu’s Nostalghia (In Memory of Andrei Tarkovskij). Here, all of the idiosyncrasies that seemed misapplied in her Tchaikovsky – the throbbing vibrato, heavy tone, portamenti, and so on – were used more judiciously and applied to more touching and meaningfully expressive ends.
Takemitsu’s quarter-hour-long memorial to the Soviet filmmaker is about as straightforward a piece of his as they come. A string orchestra provides a largely supportive presence; its part is often meant to evoke water or mist, common themes in Takemitsu’s wider body of music. The soloist introduces a searching, plaintive melody at the beginning that’s clearly present (or referenced) for most of the piece’s duration. A pair of gentle cadenzas, more expressive than dramatic, frame Nostalghia’s outer parts. Weighted pauses lend an air of meditation to the proceedings. Just before the diatonic final cadence, the solo violin plays a soaring melody in artificial harmonics accompanied by delicate glissandos in the low strings; that’s just the last in a series of haunting, subtle gestures that mark the work.
It’s a gem of a piece, though Thursday’s cough-happy audience seemed more immune to its rewards than not. (“Well, that was rather somber,” a patron nearby commented archly, evidently surprised that an elegy mightn’t be more chipper.) Mutter, whose patronage of living composers and championship of contemporary music is second-to-none, gave a searing, intense reading of the solo part and Nelsons drew playing warmth and tenderness from a reduced BSO string section.
He did the same with the full ensemble, too, in Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 6, which closed the concert. This is one of Shostakovich’s weirder symphonies. It has three movements, rather than the traditional four, the first of which is an immense, brooding essay. It’s followed by two that seem to want to forget (or erase the fact) that the first one ever happened. Neither fully succeeds and, though it all ends in a bright burst of circus-y B major, the music’s concluding smile, as it were, is pasted on.
That Nelsons didn’t fully resolve the contradictions latent within the piece is more reflective of Shostakovich’s writing in it than anything else; simply put, the Sixth isn’t his strongest work. Even so, it’s not a bad score. Quite the opposite: it’s an intriguing symphonic experiment.
On Thursday, the first movement – which is unbalanced by a robustly contrapuntal first half followed by a static, aimless second – came over about as strongly as it could. Nelsons smartly balanced its opening layers of counterpoint (parts of it are a veritable maze) and followed that up with an atmospheric account of its meandering conclusion (the latter included a meltingly-beautiful solo from principal horn James Somerville).
In the subsequent movements, the tempos drove hard. The second, its opening clarinet lick not quite sure-footed on Thursday, was regardless chilling and brutal. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe nailed his solo in the jaunty finale, which also revealed its share of shadows.
There was an interesting connection between the Sixth’s middle movement and Thursday night’s opener, the popular Festive Overture. In the latter, Nelsons emphasized a series of jubilant flourishes that appear in the Overture’s middle part. The same type of figure crops up in the second movement of the Symphony, though here its expressive affect is totally different: terrifying and violent. Sometimes, it seems, the distance between farce and tragedy, unalloyed joy and deep sorrow (“Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy,” etc.) is very short, indeed.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.