Epic Elgar symphony highlights Boston Philharmonic’s Romantic program

February 21, 2016 at 2:47 pm

By David Wright

Jennifer Frautschi performed Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto with the Boston Philharmonic Saturday night.

Jennifer Frautschi performed Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with the Boston Philharmonic Saturday night.

A fired-up Boston Philharmonic led by Benjamin Zander lit a fuse under three Romantic masterpieces Saturday night in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.

The role of passionate outsider was played by two composers at opposite ends of the Romantic timeline, Robert Schumann and Edward Elgar. Music by Charles Ives might have filled out that narrative nicely, but Zander and his orchestra went instead with the great Romantic insider, that conservatory founder and hobnobber with royalty, Felix Mendelssohn.

The result was a colorful and well-played mini-tour of the Romantics and their world, through musical portraits of three of the movement’s outstanding personalities.

The evening began in true Romantic fashion, with the sudden surge of three syncopated chords that opens Schumann’s Manfred Overture. Byron’s poem about the dying sorcerer looking back at his life with grief and regret reportedly so moved Schumann that, while reading it aloud, the composer was  overcome with emotion and couldn’t continue. 

Instead, he found a musical outlet for his feelings, which were present in every bar of the Philharmonic’s performance: tense and suspenseful in the slow introduction, agitated and anxious later on, even in the more lyrical interludes–an apt interpretation of the composer’s subjective marking “in leidenschaftlichem Tempo” (in a passionate tempo).

While some conductors try to compensate for Schumann’s undeniably thick and monotonous orchestrations, sometimes even altering the score itself, Zander decided to let Schumann be Schumann, digging into the dense, dark textures, accepting them as this composer’s authentic voice. The orchestra’s bright string tone and nicely balanced woodwinds helped it speak.

In his moments of depression and self-doubt, Schumann sometimes expressed envy of Mendelssohn, whom he once called “the Mozart of our time,” for the latter’s apparent ease of invention, mastery of Classical forms, skill at counterpoint, etc.

Actually, the record shows that Mendelssohn questioned himself constantly and sweated over his drafts like everybody else. But it’s understandable that Schumann thought otherwise, when the product of all this effort was a seemingly carefree gem like the Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, which received a spirited, polished performance Saturday from the orchestra and soloist Jennifer Frautschi.

Opening the concerto with its memorable theme, Frautschi’s tone was a bit on the acidic side, perhaps not a bad thing in music of such sweetness, although more fullness of tone would have been welcome in the more lyrical moments.

In some places, the violinist’s playing was volatile and free, as if to break out of this composer’s tidy Classical scheme, but she could also deliver fast staccato passages with sparkling rhythmic precision.

The violinist’s showy part was supported by the countless delicious orchestral details, particularly blending and interaction with the woodwinds, that Mendelssohn placed in the score and Zander and his players ably rendered. Frautschi and Zander were in sync for some expressive additional rubato in the recapitulation. 

Conductor and soloist took the second movement’s marking Andante literally as “going,” moving the tender melody at a lilting, almost one-beat-to-a-bar pace, emphasizing the note of urgency and passion in the movement. But there were also moments of serene reflection, particularly when it was just the soloist and woodwinds playing.

Frautschi wore her virtuosity lightly as she tore cheerfully through the bubbly finale. In several places, Mendelssohn asked her partners, the woodwinds, to play exactly with her, and just as fast–a challenge conductor and players rose to pretty well in this performance.

But technical matters aside, in this movement a sensation of blithe delight is the goal. How well Frautschi and the band achieved that was indicated by the warm ovation and repeated calls to the stage that followed their performance.

The expressive territory of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 in A-flat major is worlds away from the dotty charm of the “Enigma” Variations, composed a decade earlier. Indeed, its titanic struggle of a classic “nobilmente” Elgar theme with pages and pages of turbulent, unresolved harmonies prompted no less an observer than Richard Strauss to dub Elgar “the first English progressivist.”

This self-taught, Roman Catholic son of a shopkeeper in a provincial city could hardly have been more of an outsider in Edwardian England’s class-conscious, London-centered society. But from this Haydn-like isolation emerged a Haydn-like original, whose fertile imagination and dearly-won mastery of the orchestra eventually swept all before it in the English music scene.

That mastery was demonstrated over and over in Saturday’s performance, beginning with the curiously open sonority underlying the great motto theme—not the lush sound of Elgar’s late-Romantic peers, but something new and fresh.

Zander and his players skillfully managed the layers of this composer’s orchestration up to and including the sonorous brass climaxes. The bite and energy of their playing held the listener’s attention throughout the long and complex first movement.

Nothing in Elgar’s jolly marches or droll musical portraits prepares one for the Shostakovich-like fury of this symphony’s march movement–“scherzo” hardly does it justice—as fiercely rendered by Zander on Saturday. The Adagio, on the other hand, was driven by the subtleties of Elgar’s scoring: vibrant strings and swelling horns amid an ever-changing chemistry of woodwinds and brass, all expertly realized in this performance.

Zander created a feeling of suspense and sonic space in the finale’s introduction, the better to crank up the marcato energy of the Allegro, which rivaled Tchaikovsky for rhythmic excitement and vivid scoring. Poised on the podium and clear in his urgent beat, the conductor drove the work to a triumphant conclusion that brought the audience to its feet at the end.

The program will be repeated at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre 3 p.m. Sunday. bostonphil.org: 617-236-0999.

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