Nov. 10, 2007 concert reviewed by Karl Henning
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, 10 November 2007
Christian Tetzlaff, violin
James Levine, conducting
Berg, Violin Concerto
Mahler, Symphony No. 9
The two pieces on this rich program share the distinction of being the last score completed by their respective composers, both of whom departed this life at the untimely age of 50. They are further entwined biographically. Gustav Mahler’s widow Alma subsequently married the architect Walter Gropius, whom Alma bore a daughter, Manon. At the time that Louis Krasner had commissioned Berg to compose the Violin Concerto, Alma had been married to the Prague-born poet and writer Franz Werfel some six years.
At first Berg sought to evade Krasner’s request for a concerto, saying that the world of Wieniawski and Vieuxtemps was not his. However, Berg did guardedly accept the commission; and when the shocking news reached him of the 18-year-old Manon’s death by polio, he conceived of writing the Concerto as a sort of Requiem, “to the memory of an angel.”
Berg died without ever hearing the Concerto performed, of course. Krasner played the premiere in April of 1936 at a festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Barcelona. Anton Webern was to conduct, but he was still in such an emotional state with his friend’s recent decease (they were fellow composition students of Schoenberg’s), that at the last minute (and with minimal opportunity to study the score) Hermann Scherchen stepped in to conduct in Webern’s stead.
It was only last November that Christian Tetzlaff played both the Schoenberg and Beethoven concertos in a tour de force program, so when I learned that he was playing the Berg Concerto this season, no question remained. The performance of both soloist and orchestra was exquisite; one shivers at even the memory of the ghostly trade-off of the Es ist genug chorale phrases, the BSO winds sounding a sort of apotheosis of a village church harmonium. The crowd in Symphony Hall applauded Tetzlaff enthusiastically, and he responded by playing the Andante from the Bach A Minor Sonata for an encore, an after-performance which in turn held the audience spellbound.
Deryck Cooke seems already to have proposed the Tchaikovsky Pathétique as a formal model for Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. The third movement of the Mahler is a vigorous Rondo of a character which would normally serve as the finale to a symphony (which might equally be said of the somewhat overconfident March of the Pathétique’s third movement); and both symphonies end with poignant slow movements which, because they close the symphony in place of a cheery Allegro, cast something of a somber hue over the whole work.
But where Tchaikovsky’s finale leaves an impassioned, wracked-with-tears impression, the luminous pianissimo at the close of Mahler’s final complete symphony shimmered in Symphony Hall with an otherworldly serenity. It was a magical close to a completely engaging, full-blooded performance which truly marks a milestone in the orchestra’s partnership with James Levine.
One delightful artifact in the program notes, is the reprint of a letter which Aaron Copland wrote to the editor of the New York Times in April, 1925, defending Mahler’s music. Before the concert, I read with delight Copland’s remark that Mahler “was never more Mahler than when he was copying Mozart.” But it was not until the orchestra began playing the second movement, that I felt the force and musical truth of Copland’s pithy observation.