Knussen conducts Knussen and Russian novelties with Boston Symphony

April 14, 2013
By David Wright

Soprano Claire Booth performs Oliver Knussen’s “Whitman Settings” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the composer Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

Although it’s only mid-April, the musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra may have been smelling the pine needles Friday night, as their longtime Tanglewood colleague Oliver Knussen came to Symphony Hall and led them in a program of novelties.

The Glasgow-born composer-conductor, who studied with Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood and later succeeded his teacher as the festival’s director of contemporary music activities, seems drawn to everything colorful, fanciful, or grotesque in music. (He collaborated, for example, on two operas with the late author-illustrator Maurice Sendak.)  It made sense that, given free rein with a BSO program, he would turn to Russian music for two items to match with two of his own compositions.

(Knussen’s other musical base has been Britain’s Aldeburgh Festival, founded by Benjamin Britten, where Russian composers and performers have often played prominent roles.)

According to the program book, it was an entire evening of firsts for the BSO, which had never previously played Miaskovsky’s Symphony No. 10, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the Leopold Stokowski orchestration, or the two works by Knussen, the Violin Concerto and Whitman Settings for soprano and orchestra.

The moderate-sized audience apparently struggled with the newness of it all, greeting each piece with tentative applause, at least until Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate of Kiev” rattled Symphony Hall’s statues at the end of the night.

For their part, the BSO players responded to Knussen’s firm direction with commitment and determination to realize each piece’s sonic effects.  This was nowhere more apparent than in the Miaskovsky symphony that opened the program, a frenzied piece that the BSO strings in particular tore into with abandon.

Nikolai Miaskovsky, once a leading figure in Russian music of the Soviet era, is now remembered mainly as a lifelong friend and sounding board to Sergei Prokofiev.  (Those who write a lot about Prokofiev surely have the phrase “As he wrote to Miaskovsky…” stored in their computers.)  Astonishingly prolific—27 symphonies in 28 years, for starters—the often-melancholy Miaskovsky kept his distance from the Soviet musical establishment, sometimes to his cost.

The inspiration for his Symphony No. 10 came from Pushkin’s narrative poem The Bronze Horseman, a classic text in Russian literature, and a famous illustration of it by Alexandre Benois, showing a lone figure fleeing in terror across a moonlit square, with a giant equestrian statue in pursuit.  This bizarre image, evocative of arrogant power and the helpless common man, is said to have resonated throughout Russian culture.

Miaskovsky summoned up this nightmare in a one-movement symphony for a huge orchestra (with eight horns, no less), and he didn’t spare the horses. Strings race furiously this way and that, pursued by implacable brass (bronze?) instruments intoning a menacing, dissonant theme over and over.

Lacerating in the chase scenes, the BSO strings changed to a velvety tone for the second theme group, which seemed to evoke happier times of the protagonist with his fiancée, who was lost in a flood because…well, anyway, the statue had something to do with it.

The orchestra under Knussen executed Miaskovsky’s score with fire and skill, although it was hard to judge how many of its Russian nuances they captured.  After the piece received mixed reviews in New York in 1930, the composer wrote to Prokofiev that “Americans could hardly be expected to understand this symphony.”  The tepid applause that followed the furious performance on Friday night seemed to bear him out.

Knussen’s Violin Concerto at least had the advantage of an audience-favorite soloist, Pinchas Zukerman, and the composer’s colorful way with an orchestra.  The composer described it as “in three movements played without pause…I was tempted above to write ‘in three scenes.’”

Indeed, the piece came across at times like music to accompany something else, like dance or stage action, rather than a strongly communicative work on its own.  Perhaps Zukerman, for whom the concerto was written, contributed to this impression with his modest manner and cool execution.

The opening movement, Recitative, had the rhythm and pace not of an opera singer but a stand-up comedian.  Zukerman ably barked out his finger-tangling one-liners amid splatters, bubbles and thumps from the orchestra.

The Aria that followed set a solo in long, taut phrases over gently throbbing strings touched with harp and percussion, an attractive effect.  Later Knussen added a high woodwind chorale and striking crescendos for the three horns.  Zukerman’s perfect intonation admirably outlined Knussen’s clear harmonies and distinctive melodic intervals.  Tenderness and warmth, however, were in short supply—whether because of the score or the performance was hard to say.

But one suspects that the closing Gigue, with its dizzying contradictions of the underlying dance rhythm, could sound funnier than it did Friday night, as Zukerman earnestly delivered his twisty part.  If his skillful playing didn’t sparkle, the orchestra certainly did, in Knussen’s favorite combination of deep rumbles with a sizzle of cymbal, piccolo, harp, and other high percussion.

Another frequent Knussen collaborator, the English soprano Claire Booth, was on hand to make her BSO debut in the composer’s Whitman Settings, which, as the title implied, were not really “songs” but musical recitations of Walt Whitman’s sprawling yet muscular lines.

In a clear voice with a spot of English cream, Booth expressively negotiated the rather disjunct vocal lines, spinning out the American poet’s extravagant phrases to their ample length.  Having already won the audience over by looking slightly startled at their welcoming applause, she went on to give a winningly natural performance of her challenging part.

The four settings were originally for voice and piano, and maybe they should have stayed that way, because when Knussen’s typically bright orchestration for brass, chimes, and high strings got going, Booth’s chamber-music-sized voice was often obscured by all the sizzle.

The settings seemed to take the shape of a four-movement symphony: humorously expository in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” mysterious and awestruck in “The Noiseless, Patient Spider,” scherzo-like (and unmistakably erotic) in “The Dalliance of the Eagles,” and achieving a mystical resolution (and dissolution) in “The Voice of the Rain.”  Conductor and soloist brought out the character of each movement vividly.

Speaking of vivid, few musical works evoke visual imagery as intensely as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.  But despite an actual exhibition of paintings all around Symphony Hall running concurrently with these performances, the emphasis Friday night was not on visual images but on the sound of the orchestra itself.

One tends to think of Pictures as existing in a version “for piano” and another version “for orchestra,” and that’s it.  Symphony Hall is, in fact, the home field for Ravel’s ubiquitous orchestration of this work, BSO conductor Serge Koussevitzky having obtained exclusive performing rights to it for a time in the 1920s.

But there have always been those who considered Ravel’s arrangement to be more Ravel than Mussorgsky, a French piece with a pleasant frisson of Russianness.  One was the conductor Leopold Stokowski, who wrote that “Mussorgsky’s music is the quintessence of the Slavic spirit” and set out in 1939 to make a transcription of Pictures that would “preserve and express this Slavic character.”

How well he succeeded was clearly demonstrated in Knussen’s performance with the BSO Friday night.  Everything dark and mysterious, bizarre and grotesque, violent and volatile about Mussorgsky’s piece surged through the strange old-new orchestration.  (Stokowski went so far as to omit the two movements, “Tuileries” and “The Marketplace at Limoges,” in which Mussorgsky had depicted French scenes.)

Instead of Ravel’s blended orchestration, choirs of strings, winds, and brass were hurled against each other à la Tchaikovsky.  One could even hear Stokowski giving favored-nation treatment to the lush sonorities of his legendary “Philadelphia strings,” to which the Boston strings responded on Friday night with their own lean, satiny sound.

Perhaps more than Miaskovsky, the canny Stokowski knew how to please and surprise at the same time, and Friday’s American audience definitely “got” the Russianness of this old masterpiece made new, rewarding Knussen and his able band with by far the most enthusiastic applause of the night.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.; 617-266-1200.

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